If you’re no stranger to waking up in the middle of the night and having trouble drifting off to sleep again, you’re certainly not alone. Here’s how to get back to sleep.
For many, waking up in the middle of the night is no strange occurrence. However, while some people can fall back asleep with ease, others struggle with nighttime wakefulness regularly.
The reality is we all wake up every single night, some of us are just better at waking slightly, tossing about to find a more comfortable position, and drifting back to sleep. The rest of us often find ourselves far too wide awake for that.
The reasons behind sudden awakenings in the middle of the night vary and include nuisances such as a snoring partner, a loud noise, a restless pet, or even something more serious, like sleep-maintenance insomnia (SMI) or sleep apnea.
If you’ve recently begun to experience a frequent inability to get enough restful sleep and the issue persists for more than three weeks, consult your doctor. Several conditions can cause such symptoms, and they might need proper treatment.
But if it’s not a sudden change and there are no underlying health issues, you should dig into these tips to help get back to sleep faster.
Those who are not familiar with meditation and yoga tend to underestimate the power of deep, controlled breathing. It raises your blood oxygen levels and helps calm your body. Practicing deep conscious breathing is an excellent way to slow down your heartbeat when you’re feeling stressed out or nervous and can even help you feel more in control over your emotions.
If you awake startled by a noise or a dream, it’s a perfect time to self-soothe with deep breathing. If you find yourself in that situation, take a slow deep breath in through the nose as you count to three, and slowly breathe out through the mouth as you count to three once again. The counting prevents you from taking shallow breaths and keeps your mind focused on the action rather than on what just happened. If you want to go the extra mile here, try to breathe in deeply enough that it feels like your stomach is expanding—this ensures you’re filling your lungs.
Visualize and Relax
A recommendation supported by the National Sleep Foundation for falling back asleep in the middle of the night is relaxation via guided imagery. This technique consists in focusing on mental images of a place or a memory that makes you feel content and calm—be it your favorite beach, a special moment you shared with a loved one or the lyrics to a song. Imagine every sensory detail related to that thought, such as the smell, the sound, the way it felt on your skin, the way it made you feel. Your mind will focus on all that information and incite the same feeling of relaxation that will eventually put you to sleep.
Another trick is to keep your mind busy with some uninteresting activity, such as counting with a twist. Instead of merely counting until you fall asleep, try and visualize every number with a different color and in three dimensions. This thought processing slows down your breathing, and the imagery engages your brain just enough for it to put it to sleep.
Tense and Release
If visualization doesn’t come easy because your body is feeling uncomfortable, try to release some physical tension. Starting from your head and moving down to your toes, tense every muscle group for five seconds at a time and release. This will bring body awareness and will help you feel more in control and relaxed overall, letting you focus on visualizing your favorite moment and fall asleep.
If you’re having trouble with the tense-and-release method, there are abundant guided meditations on YouTube, Spotify, and the like. You can listen to during the day to get a sense of how the process works so you can recreate it at night in bed. Here’s an example of a guided meditation playlist from Spotify that has several examples of this style of relaxation meditation.
Keep Electronics Away
It can be very tempting to go immediately for your phone the second your eyes open—trust us, we know—but going straight for your phone when you can’t seem to fall asleep won’t help you do it any faster.
The bright blue light emitted by electronics such as your phone, your laptop, or e-reader, stimulates your brain, making it believe it’s day time and keeps you awake. The very things you find on your phone—notifications, work emails, social media pings—are stimulating too. You should resist the urge to scroll for “just a minute” on your phone or, at the minimum if you do look at it, use the night mode on your phone so the light is dim and red-shifted to be easier on your eyes and body. The fewer things you focus on, the easier it will be for your mind to switch off and let you get some shut-eye.
If you find that your phone is a source of nighttime anxiety or you’re just struggling to not fuss with it before bed or when you wake up in the middle of the night, it might be worth buying an old fashioned alarm clock and leaving your phone to charge outside your bedroom.
Don’t Stress About the Time
Speaking of your phone, while you might end up playing around on it most likely you pick it up to check the time. We’ve all been there: you wake up in the middle of the night, find out it’s 2 AM, and you’re suddenly doing the math to find out how many hours of sleep you’ve got left till your alarm goes off. You stress out and begin to check the clock every other minute, only perpetuating your worries which keep you awake for even longer. Eventually, it’s 4 AM, you’re still wide awake, and you only have two more hours to sleep: panic ensues.
A straightforward way to avoid such a situation is by simply avoiding checking the time. The more you think about it, the more distressed you’ll be. Instead, keep the clock facing away from you or just don’t reach for it at all, and temporarily forget about the notion of time. Easier said than done, but follow this with some visualization, and you’ll be halfway to dreamland.
Find it extra hard to resist checking the clock? Put your alarm clock on the other side of the room or even in the bathroom. Then tell yourself if the alarm isn’t going off you’re free to sleep and if it is going off, then you’ve got a great reason to spring out of bed and get on with the day.
Get Up and Move
If your mind can’t seem to slow down after 20 minutes of failed attempts at relaxing, get up, and leave the bedroom. If you’ve never heard this advice before it might sound counterintuitive but hear us out. Sleep experts will tell you: don’t stay in bed if you can’t sleep. The more time you spend in bed not sleeping, the more time spend associating your bed with things other than sleep. You don’t want your brain to associate lying in bed in the middle of the night with being restless or anxious; you want it to associate your bed with restful sleep.
If you wake up and no amount of deep breathing, visualization, or other tricks is making a dent in your wakefulness, get out of bed. Sit on the couch and do a dull and boring activity to induce sleep. Knitting, reading a book, or doing a puzzle under low light will distract you from your sleeplessness and eventually drive you straight back to bed to fall back asleep for the rest of the night. Avoid doing anything that is part of your morning routine like getting food, as that will likely make it more challenging to get back to sleep.
Regulate the Room Temperature
Waking up from night sweats isn’t pleasant, and the added element of heat can make it that much more challenging to get back to sleep. When that happens, try to make sure the thermostat is set to a cool 60-65 degrees Fahrenheit and take off as many layers as you feel comfortable with so that your body can better self-regulate its temperature overnight.
Having a cool sleeping environment will prevent the disruption of your deep and REM sleep, two restorative stages of sleep that play a crucial role in memory processing and cognitive functioning. Going forward, try to keep the room as cool as comfortable when you’re headed to bed.
Keep a Sleep Journal
When mid-night awakenings become frequent, having a sleep journal could help you put down your thoughts and worries to paper for you to think over and analyze in the morning, and possibly identify specific patterns. The act of writing itself can even ease you back into sleep. However, if the issue persists, you can consult your doctor and use your journal as evidence of inconsistent sleeping habits to identify an appropriate strategy for dealing with your sleeplessness.
Often, trying to fall back asleep in the middle of the night is no easy task. It requires mental and physical relaxation and minimal environmental stimulation. Follow the tricks we shared and continue dreaming.