The airline industry never sleeps. I often feel like I don’t either. I’m sure a lot of you may feel the same way. (I see you, new parents!) Any given trip I work may start at 4am on a Saturday or 10pm on a Tuesday night. I might be working four flights in one day. Or two six hour flights back to back—overnight. My body is constantly readjusting to new time zones. And then when I’m not working, I’m hopping a plane for leisure to yet another one.
Jetlag when you’re traveling, or after traveling, can be rough. It can really knock you out. But when you are working in an industry where any day could be “The Day”—the day you have to evacuate an aircraft full of people in mere minutes—it’s critical to be not just awake, but alert and on your A-game.
This has been on my mind because I’ve been working A LOT lately, and I’ve got to tell y’all I am tired. So, so tired. Exhausted. I’ve compiled a list of tips for trouble with falling asleep or staying awake that keep me rested and safe while on the road. Maybe some could work for you too. So here we go; Let’s talk about sleep (ba-by).
The obvious thing here is you need to get a good night’s rest. Believe me, I know this is easier said than done. But carve out time for your sleep. It’s literally the most important thing for your mental and physical health, and coffee is not a substitute.
Sleep Anxiety, Anyone?
I’m not a “morning person,” and my body does this interesting thing when I have an early report time. I’ll get in bed like I should, eight hours before I need to wake up, ready for a restful night’s sleep. But it evades me. I lie there awake. I go over in my head what time I have to leave to drive to the airport, then what time I need to be in the shower to get out the door on time, what time I have to be up for coffee, maybe for a morning run if I’m feeling ambitious. I think about whether I’ll hit any traffic. I think about the clothes I’ve packed in my suitcase and whether they’re weather appropriate. Do I have enough food for the trip? Is my alarm definitely set? Let’s check it seven or eight more times to be sure.
Then before you know it, it’s much later and despite being exhausted I’m still awake.
And then the real fun starts.
Okay, you only have six hours left to sleep. Fall asleep now.
Alright, now I’ve got four and a half hours left to sleep. Gotta fall asleep now.
And this is the deadly part of the cycle for me. Once I start counting down how many hours I have left to sleep, it’s nearly impossible for me to relax enough to actually fall asleep.
While I like to believe I’m special, I’m pretty sure a lot of other people suffer from this same maddening, count-down crazed, insomnia-inducing sleep malady. Luckily, I’ve been dealing with it for a while and I’ve got some tricks up my sleeve. These are some tips I use in day-to-day to beat sleep anxiety. They’re not fool-proof, but they’ve proved pretty darn effective for me.
1. Come up with a Ritual.
Before bed, especially when I have a very early morning start, I like to have a cup of sleepy time tea, be it chamomile or Yogi’s “Bedtime”. The tea is supposed to soothe you and get you primed for bed, but more important than the actual substance is the ritual. You can train your brain to start the process of getting ready for sleep by conditioning it to associate this evening hot tea with bedtime. Maybe you’re the person that needs to take a hot shower before bed every night to feel your most relaxed and ready to sleep. Maybe you want to read—like an actual paper book—every night before bed.
Come up with some ritual for your evenings that will start getting you ready before you actually hit the sheets and try to sleep.
2. Put the phone down. Away from you.
The research is in, and it’s as clear as climate change: Staring at your screen keeps your mind awake. Scrolling through Facebook and Instagram does not signal to your brain that you’re ready to sleep. It keeps your mind actively engaged in reading whatever your reading or staring at pictures of cats. Our phones are addictive, and so, too, is the act of scrolling (through emails, social media, or old texts or photos). Keeping this addictive device right next to you in bed while you try to ignore it and sleep is just setting yourself up for failure. Plug it in across the room, or in the next room. Maybe getting up to shut off your alarm will make you quit hitting the snooze button too!
The answer to insomnia isn't in your DMs.
I can’t say enough how this effects my sleep. I’m a pretty active person, but I fall off the wagon like everyone else. I’ve gone through those months-long slumps where I’m not eating the healthiest, where I’m not working out consistently or at all. And always what I notice (beyond my fluffy mid-section) is how my sleep suffers. Or, more accurately, I notice it once I start working out again and I’m actually tired when I go to bed.
Our bodies are not designed to sit stagnant all day. I realize in this regard I’m luckier than a lot of people who sit at desks for work, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is so, so important to move your body. I’m not a scientist, but the research is ample. According to polling by the National Sleep Foundation, exercisers are more likely than non-exercisers to report sleeping well. And vigorous exercisers are twice as likely to report having had “a good night’s sleep last night” than their non-exercising counterparts. Another study by Northwestern University (discussed in this CNN article) showed adults with insomnia reported better sleep quality, from “poor” to “good”, after beginning an exercise regimen. In addition, they reported less daytime sleepiness and less depressive symptoms. And if sleep apnea is keeping you awake, exercise is one of the top recommendations by doctors.
It can be hard to fit in, whether you’re tired after sitting and staring at a screen for eight hours, or stepping off a plane after a 14-hour duty day, but seriously the benefits JUST for sleep are well worth forcing some movement into your day.
And staying awake
My favorite litle pick-me-up 🙂
So those are tips to help you fall asleep, but what about later on, when the day has already begun, maybe has stretched longer than you anticipated, and you’re not feeling quite as alert or awake as you need to be? A delayed West coast red eye turn will bring this about, and so will a bad night’s (or day’s) sleep. Here’s what I do:
1. Coffee, coffee, coffee. Tea, tea, tea.
2. Get up and walk around.
I work red eye flights often, and one of us is always walking through the cabin to check seatbelts or collect trash or hand out water. Sure, we care about you. But it’s also because we’ve got to keep ourselves awake and alert!
3. Drink lots of water.
4. And seltzer with lime.
Something about the fizz and the citrus tickles your nose and wakes the senses.
5. Vitamin pack.
Emergen-c or Airborne. I always feel a little energy burst after one of these vitamin bombs. Plus, the only time I ever get sick is after being consistently sleep deprived and tired. So, two birds, one stone.
My stepdad, who is a trucker by profession, (we love transportation!) swears by chewing gum when he gets tired on the road. He even says it’s better than coffee. I don’t chew gum, but I have been known to pop a curiously strong peppermint when I’m feeling like I need a little pick-me-up.
I know this one seems like bad advice, and it can be! Pizza won’t keep you awake. Eat healthy snacks like vegetables dipped in hummus or an apple with peanut butter. The protein helps to keep you going, the natural sugar gives a pick-me-up, and the crunching and chewing means you’re actively working at eating it—maybe keeping you more alert than you otherwise would be.
I like to tell my best dad jokes to my crews, and while I’ve been told they’re not especially funny, they crack me up and sometimes that’s all that matters. Watch a funny video, surf for memes. I work with some colorful characters, so there is no shortage of opportunity to laugh. It really is the best medicine.
These tips from a Flight Attendant aren’t just for on the road—but they are a big help if you are traveling a lot. They also might seem like common sense, but sleep is a tricky thing for a lot of people. I think it’s worth it to take a second look at those obvious things if you’re not having the sweetest of dreams in your current sleep routine.
What are your best tips for falling asleep or staying awake? Share with the class! Comment below, I’d love to expand my arsenal. In the meantime, I’m about finished with this very delayed, very long overnight flight and ready for a daytime nap to end all naps.
Thanks for stopping by. And sweet dreams!