Why Is It So Damn Hard to Fall Asleep on Sundays?

sunday sleep problems
Oren Aks/Thrillist
Oren Aks/Thrillist

In theory, Sundays should be devoted to downtime and total relaxation. There's nowhere you have to be -- except your couch, your kitchen, and maybe a boozy brunch.

But in reality, how many of us spend Sundays feeling like crap and eating like crap until we finally turn off Game of Thrones, crawl into bed, and try desperately to sleep? (Guilty as charged.) Then the next thing you know it's 2am and you're staring down Monday morning with bloodshot eyes and sweaty palms.

If you've ever experienced this late-night anxiety on Sundays, know you're not alone. One survey found that 76% of Americans report having "really bad" Sunday blues. Sleep experts agree: "Difficulty falling asleep on Sundays is nothing new," says Raj Dasgupta, MD, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California. While there's no official medical name for it, plenty of people are all too familiar with so-called "Sunday night insomnia" or "Sunday Scaries."  

The main culprit is what's known as social jet lag. Like traveling to a different time zone, staying out late (or, let's be real, watching Stranger Things until 3am) and then sleeping in late the next morning affects your body's internal clock, or circadian rhythm, says Michael Breus, PhD, a board-certified sleep specialist and fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. "If you do this two days in a row, you end up with Sunday night insomnia."

Another factor effing up your sleep schedule is, not surprisingly, alcohol. It causes you to wake up more frequently during the night and suppresses the release of the antidiuretic hormone ADH, which makes you go to the bathroom more often, Dasgupta says. This means your sleep quality after a night of drinking is pretty poor, and poor sleep quality means you wake up even later because you're not close to feeling refreshed. And so the vicious (lack of) sleep cycle continues.

Finally, there's stress. "Whether you're a student worrying about tests, a parent taking care of your kids, or working at a 9-to-5, stress is a factor for pretty much anyone," Dasgupta says. When your body is stressed out -- physically, mentally, or emotionally -- it releases the hormone cortisol, which causes your mind to go on high alert and disrupts sleep. It's a chicken-and-egg situation: if you're stressed, you sleep poorly; but poor sleep can also cause you to feel stressed. Either way, this delightful combo can lead to a host of health risks, Dasgupta says, like high blood pressure and diabetes -- not to mention a general shitty mood.

So now that you know Sunday insomnia is a real thing (and that you're not crazy), you can follow these expert tips to sleep more soundly come next Sunday.

Seven tips to conquer the Sunday Scaries

1. Stick to a sleep schedule. If you start to tackle the Sunday Scaries on Sunday, you're doing it wrong. We know, you haven't had a "bedtime" since middle school, but the best thing to do, according to Breus and Dasgupta, is to go to sleep and wake up at approximately the same time on Saturday and Sunday as you do during the week (give or take 30 minutes). And open up your shades: to help your body's circadian rhythm stay on track, it's key to get about 15 minutes of sunlight immediately after you wake up. Also, try to avoid napping on the weekend or going to bed super early on Sunday nights, Breus says, which can cause other problems.

2. Avoid alcohol and caffeine. Sorry, but Sunday Funday is not the solution. Sure, drinking may help you fall asleep at first, Dasgupta says, but it lowers the quality of sleep overall for the reasons mentioned above. Plus, we guarantee you're not going to wake up on Monday morning glad you downed a six-pack the night before. As for coffee? Try to avoid caffeine past 2pm, Breus says. Even better if you can skip it completely.

3. Put the phone away. Try to avoid exposure to light of any kind before bed, Dasgupta suggests. The worst kind is the blue light emitted from electronic devices like iPhones and iPads, because it suppresses the sleep hormone melatonin. Leave the iPhone outside your bedroom if possible -- Instagram will still be there in the morning, we promise.

4. Get some exercise. We know the last thing you feel like doing on a Sunday morning is working out, but just try to move your body, ideally in the early AM, Dasgupta says. This will help you fall asleep more easily at night. And you don't have to go insanely hard at the gym -- research shows that even moderate aerobic exercise (i.e., walking) is even better than lifting weights at improving quality of sleep.

5. Plan for a positive week ahead. Take a look at your week ahead and see if there's anything you can do to make your life easier, Dasgupta suggests. Also make sure to set aside time for something fun, like a workout class you've wanted to try or dinner with a friend. Another way to help get your mind right: write down a few things you're grateful for, Breus says. This helps you focus on what's good in your life, rather than what's stressing you out.

If there's an issue that's really bothering you, tell yourself you'll think about it at some point that week -- not lying in bed at midnight. Dasgupta tells patients to set aside a dedicated "worry time" during the week when they can write down what's on their mind, think about what problems they can control (and what they can't), and come up with a plan. The key? "Do this out of the bed, not in the bed."

6. Watch a mindless TV show. Think The Office or 30 Rock -- not The Walking Dead or, God forbid, news about the election. Despite common advice, it's OK to leave the TV on if it helps you fall asleep. "I have no problem with people 'listening' to TV as they fall asleep," Breus says. "When they are not looking at the screen, but rather have their eyes closed and are listening to something, it can distract from issues that may be bothering them." In fact, research suggests that watching a funny show, like Friends, is three times more effective at reducing anxiety than simply sitting and resting. Bring on the Netflix.

7. If all else fails, get up and do something else. But keep it low-key. Try folding laundry or reading a work report (but not on your phone!) if you really cannot fall asleep after 15 or 20 minutes. Remember: your bed should be dedicated to sleep -- and sleep alone, Dasgupta says. And whatever you do, don't watch the clock, he says, which will just make you more anxious.

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Locke Hughes is a freelance writer who will sleep better knowing you’re sleeping better.