Few things are as frustrating as waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep. Here’s what sleep experts say you should do if you find yourself in that situation.
We’ve all experienced this moment: It’s 3 a.m., and you’re suddenly wide awake. You can’t afford to face the day irritable and sapped of energy, but you can’t get back to sleep. What should you do?
First, know that you’re not alone. A 2010 study found that 31% of people wake up at least three times a week during the night. There’s even a name for it: sleep-maintenance insomnia. And it’s exhausting.
Luckily, sleep-maintenance insomnia can be managed with relaxation tips. (Note: If you’re experiencing frequent, long bouts of sleeplessness, you should speak to your doctor to make sure there’s not a medical issue that could be keeping you awake.) Assuming you don’t have any health problems, your insomnia could be caused by worry, stress, or poor sleep hygiene.
Read on for seven tips that can help take your back to dreamland.
7 Ways to Fall Back to Sleep Fast
The key to falling back asleep when you’re awake during the night is transitioning from a state of anxiety or frustration to relaxation.
The calmer you are, the quicker you’ll fall back asleep. Relaxation techniques and proper sleep hygiene can help you quiet your mind and get back to sleep. Try these ideas to fall back asleep quickly.
1. Don’t look at the clock.
It’s a natural instinct to look at a clock or your phone to see the time when you've woken up during the night, but it can actually make it harder for you to fall back asleep. Watching the minutes tick by can put your brain into a worried state and make it more challenging to relax. If you keep a clock in your room, turn it around when you go to bed, and keep your phone out of reach.
2. Get out of bed.
Although it might seem counterintuitive, if you’re still having trouble falling back asleep after about 20 minutes, get up and relax in another part of the house. Try something soothing, like reading (don't use your screen to read—the blue-colored light can wake up your brain and suppress the production of melatonin, a sleep-promoting hormone) or listening to music. Staying in bed for long periods of sleeplessness can make you associate your bed with being awake, rather than sleeping. You could also try taking a warm shower or bath to relax your muscles and make you sleepy. University of Texas researchers found that warm baths were associated with better sleep because they lower the body’s core temperature by bringing heat to the surface.
3. Try a relaxation exercise.
Sleep experts have found that simple exercises to release tension from your muscles and slow your brain aid sleep. Dr. Harneet Walia, FAASM, of the Cleveland Clinic’s Sleep Disorders Center, suggests progressive muscle relaxation, a technique used to release tension from different parts of the body. Here’s how to do it:
- Lying flat on your bed or the floor, take a deep breath in and exhale.
- On your next inhale, tense your toes. Hold for 4-10 seconds.
- On your exhale, relax the muscles completely.
- Now try the same with your calf muscles: inhale, tighten, hold, release.
- Repeat for each muscle group from the feet to the forehead.
Progressive muscle relaxation works in two ways: by giving your mind something to focus on other than frustration and by releasing muscle tension to prepare your body for sleep.
4. Create a comfortable space.
It’s important to have an environment that’s conducive to deep sleep. Make sure your room is a comfortable temperature and that you’ve blocked out as much light as possible. Bright lights, especially backlit screens on phones, tablets, or e-readers, make us more alert. Making sure your room is a dark, quiet sanctuary will help you get back to sleep (and help you sleep more deeply). If you live in a noisy city, try using earplugs, a white noise machine, or a fan to block out noise. If light is getting into your room under window blinds or doors, consider an eye mask.
5. Write in a journal.
Often, sleep-maintenance insomnia is caused by stress, anxiety, or an overactive brain. Writing down your thoughts can help you relax. Make sure to do this with a real pen and paper, rather than typing on a phone or computer, so that you get the benefits of journaling without the harmful light from a screen. Sleep experts recommend keeping a notebook and pen on your nightstand or next to your bed. When thoughts start running through your head, write them down and leave them on the page. People who journal report that they sleep longer and more deeply than those who don’t.
6. Listen to music.
As many music-lovers already know, music is an incredible relaxation tool. Relaxing music, especially instrumental music, has been shown to lower heart rate, increase sleep-friendly hormones like oxytocin, reduce anxiety, and even release tense muscles. So pop in your earbuds, close your eyes and sink into relaxation with your favorite acoustic or classical music. Some folks report that listening to music with something called binaural beats helps restore them to sleep, although the research is mixed.
7. Try visualization.
Consider the classic “counting sheep” sleep aid. The peaceful scene and repetitive nature of the exercise are designed to make you sleepy. But if sheep aren’t your thing, experiment with other visualizations: call up favorite memories, imagine being in beautiful places you’ve visited, or listen to a guided visualization meditation such as the ones designed specifically for sleep on the Calm or Headspace apps. Even mentally repeating poems or stories you remember from childhood can help induce drowsiness.
A Final Note on How to Fall Back Asleep
As frustrating as it is to be awake in the middle of the night, falling back asleep is only more difficult when you focus on “not getting enough sleep.”
If you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, stay calm, try a relaxing activity like progressive muscle relaxation, visualization, or journaling. Take deep breaths. Reassure yourself that even if you’re not sleeping, you are resting, and you’ll manage the next day just fine. By relaxing your body and your mind you’ll be back to dreamland before you know it.
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