A Sleep Doc Says There Are Worse Things Than Not Getting Enough Sleep

Getty Images; Gabe Conte

It’s 2024, and everywhere you look, someone is warning you of the dangers of not sleeping. The saying, “You can sleep when you’re dead,” has been replaced by relentless messaging that you’ll soon be dead if you don’t sleep. But what if someone told you that losing sleep isn’t actually worth losing sleep over?

That someone is New York City-based sleep psychologist Joshua Tal, PhD. He says that while sleep may not have been adequately prioritized historically—hence the whole “sleep when you’re dead” vibe—the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction in recent years, leading to an overemphasis on sleep. He attributes this phenomenon to the rise of wellness culture, as well as to Google and social media algorithms that reward content promoting the dangers of not sleeping.

According to Dr. Tal, this constant fear-mongering is causing people to put far too much pressure on themselves to catch adequate ZZZs every single night of the week, with somewhat ironic results. “What ends up happening is people care too much about sleep, and if you care too much about sleep, then you end up not sleeping,” he says.

For this reason, he tells clients that while it’s important to prioritize sleep, it’s also important to avoid over-prioritizing sleep. Instead, he says, you should practice telling yourself that missing a night of sleep is NBD. In fact, it’s normal. And because sleep is a biological need, your body will make it happen eventually.

Dr. Tal acknowledges just how radical and counterintuitive this mindset might be. After all, anyone who’s ever battled the insomnia monster knows how anxiety-inducing it can be to toss and turn all night, and not just because there are health consequences. It’s also just effing miserable to face a too-busy day without sleep.

But here again, Dr. Tal wants you to challenge your thinking. Of course, he says, it is harder to get through a day on no sleep, but it’s also not likely to be as bad as you think it is. “Really, it's just anticipation anxiety because when you look back, surely there are times where you didn't sleep and you were fine the next day, or there were times where you did sleep and you still made mistakes,” he says. “It's definitely uncomfortable, but it’s not worth the anxiety people have around it.”

In fact, he says, the same energy that keeps you up all night is actually likely to power you through the following day—so you’ll be fine. This may sound crazy, but if you’ve experienced sleepless nights in the past, you might know it to be true; there’s a tweaky feeling after a night of sleep loss that, while not exactly optimal, does seem to help propel you.

Widespread sleep hysteria isn’t the only slumber-related messaging Dr. Tal wants to debunk. The use of sleeping pills could be knocking you out but not giving you restful shut-eye. Studies have indicated that sleeping pills have the potential to disrupt REM sleep, which is important for memory, cognitive processing, and brain development. He also says that common wisdom around sleep hygiene—a.k.a. certain routine behaviors intended to help you sleep, like going to bed at the same time every night—can be misguided as well.

For example, he says that while most people have been told that they should engage in boring activities when they can’t sleep so as to foster sleepiness, he actually recommends the opposite. “Do something interesting that will get your mind off of things, like reading something good or doing a crossword puzzle,” he says.

In fact, he says it’s actually *fine* to watch TV if you can’t sleep, so long as you’re dealing with insomnia and not a diagnosed Delayed Circadian Rhythm issue (in which case, screentime at night can be detrimental). “You just need to make sure you’re getting your mind off not sleeping,” he says.

To that end, Dr. Tal actually promotes experimentation, rather than any specific prescription, when it comes to sleep hygiene. He isn’t going to tell you to turn off all your screens, get in bed at the same time each night, or any of the other common advice you might hear. Instead, he advocates testing things out to see what works for you. “For example, you might try getting out of bed when you can’t sleep one week and staying in bed when you can’t sleep the next,” he says.

Ideally, you’ll end up with what he describes as “a little menu” of things that have worked for you in the past that you can try when sleep evades you in the future. If it’s doing 30 push-ups, it’s doing 30 push-ups—whatever works!

Of course, the type of sleep loss to which Dr. Tal is referring, with all of his advice above, is occasional. Chronic insomnia, on the other hand, is a serious medical condition. But Dr. Tal says you don’t need to run to the doctor if you’re having a bad week with sleep. Oftentimes, rough patches are due to stress and will pass when the stressor causing them passes. You should, however, seek help if you’ve experienced insomnia three nights a week for a month or, preferably, three months consecutively.

But if you’re tossing and turning on occasion, his advice is to chill—you’ll sleep before you’re dead. In fact, you’ll probably sleep the very next night.

Originally Appeared on GQ