Most of us have been there: wide awake at 3 a.m. and no inkling that falling back asleep is on the horizon.
For those of us who experience this regularly, it’s even more frustrating and exhausting.
Constant bouts of sleepless nights can significantly affect our:
While waking in the middle of the night is fairly common, there are simple tricks that can help you get back that much-needed rest.
I spoke to several experts about the health implications of waking in the night. They shared how to fall back asleep using several different methods.
Try these tricks and your sleepless nights may become a thing of the past.
Most people wake up once or twice during the night. The reasons why are endless.
There may also be deeper reasons such as a sleep disorder or another medical condition. If you suspect you may have a sleep disorder, it’s important to see your healthcare provider and seek treatment.
Generally speaking, adults need about 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. You can expect to cycle through light, deep, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep several times during a full night of sleep.
The majority of deep sleep happens early on in the night. In the morning, you’re mainly in REM and light sleep. That’s what makes it easier to wake up.
Waking up in the middle of the night is extremely common. However, chronic waking and insomnia can have harmful effects on the body.
“If you wake up in the middle of the night, that means you haven’t achieved deep sleep, says Youngblood.
“Your body’s internal clock syncs with different hours of the day, and a different organ works its hardest during the different shifts. It’s best if you work with your organs so they can perform when they’re meant to.”
In a meta-analysis of 74 studies, researchers found that disrupted sleep patterns correlate to a higher risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease.
According to the
Meditating to fall back asleep is a great option to calm your restless mind. Using meditation:
Taking the time to do a simple breathing exercise before bed can not only help you fall asleep more quickly, but it can also help you get back to sleep after waking.
How to put it into action
There are lots of breathing exercises that can help calm you down and bring on a restful state. Below are a few simple options.
Simple relaxing breath
To use a simple breathing meditation, try lying flat on your back with your head on the pillow. Then take a few long, slow breaths in and out. Relax your body and close your eyes.
By focusing on your breath, it’s possible that your mind and body will relax enough to allow you to drift off to sleep.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Another option is progressive muscle relaxation. Starting with your toes and working your way up to your forehead, tightly tense each of your muscles for 5 seconds and then let them relax completely.
Do this until you’ve tensed and relaxed the entire body, from your face to your toes.
The 4-7-8 breathing exercise aims to slow down your breathing and the rhythm of your heart. It’s especially beneficial if you have an active imagination, because the counting gives your mind something to do.
To practice, follow these steps:
- Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth
- Completely exhale through your mouth, making a whooshing sound
- Inhale through your nose for 4 counts
- Hold your breath for 7 counts
- Exhale completely through your mouth for 8 counts
- Repeat this process three more times
Nightmares are scary, and getting back to sleep afterward can be especially difficult.
A nightmare is likely to increase your heart rate and result in an unsettled state. Images of the nightmare may also linger in your head, making it hard to sleep.
Luckily, there are a few tricks you can try to fall back asleep after a nightmare.
It’s common to be hot or sweaty because your body temperature has likely risen. You can try to sleep in an ideal temperature range to limit these uncomfortable effects.
Cooling the body after waking from a nightmare can help you get back to sleep. Try drinking some cool water or turn on a fan to start the process.
Weighted blankets may also help settle the body down after a nightmare.
While there’s no evidence that weighted blankets directly help with nightmares, pressure has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Weighted blankets have also been shown to help sleep issues in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
If nothing else, weighted blankets may provide comfort and a sense of safety.
In addition to physical techniques, there are ways to work with the mind to prevent nightmares in the future.
Psychotherapist and behavioral sleep medicine therapist Annie Miller suggests training your brain during the daytime to prevent nightmares.
“It helps to rewrite the ending when you are awake, during the day,” she says. “The idea behind these therapies is that nightmares are a learned behavior or habit, and we can teach our brain a new story.”
Through this process, your nightmare may feel less threatening. This can lead to fewer and less severe nightmares. While this approach requires a commitment, the payoff will likely be greater.
Waking up just an hour or two before you need to get up can be exceptionally frustrating. With barely any time left to get in your needed rest, the pressure can prevent you from relaxing and drifting back to sleep.
As tempting as it can be, don’t pick up your phone when you wake in the early morning.
There are a few reasons why this affects your sleep. First, you can get sucked into whatever is popping up in your inbox or trending on social media and become too stimulated to sleep.
Another study noted that nighttime light exposure affected behavioral rhythms and metabolic efficiency.
Researchers have also found a
Set your environment up for success
Go for an environment that’s dark and cave-like, yet safe and comforting.
If you want to make some tweaks to create a soothing space, the following tips can help:
- Install blackout curtains to keep your room light-free.
- Use an eye mask and earplugs.
- Invest in a white noise machine.
- Listen to a soothing playlist.
- Replace night lights with red light.
One study showed that red light had a less disruptive effect on sleep phases than blue light.
Know when to quit
Miller says that in some cases, falling back asleep in the morning may not be ideal.
“Sleeping late is not helpful if you’re experiencing trouble sleeping. It’s best to wake up at the same time every day, even if that means you get less sleep in the short-term,” she says.
If you wake up 45 minutes before your alarm, you might as well call it a wash for the day.
There may also be underlying health issues that cause sleep disruption. These include:
- digestive problems (especially acid reflux)
- needing to urinate often
- side effects of certain medications
- sleep apnea
restless legs syndrome
A few psychological reasons that can cause sleeping problems include:
Habitual or behavioral reasons
Your sleep hygiene, or habits around going to sleep and waking up, can have a major effect on your quality of sleep. This includes:
- inconsistent sleep schedule
- using electronics too close to bedtime
- drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, or having it too late in the day
jet lag rotating work shifts
In addition to habits, your environment plays a major role in whether you get quality sleep.
Here are a few things to look at:
- Lighting. If your room isn’t dark, try blackout curtains or an eye mask.
- Noises. Earplugs or a noise machine can help keep disruptive noises at bay.
- Temperature. You’ll get your best sleep if your room is kept at a cooler temperature.
- Partners or pets. If they share your bed, they may disrupt your sleep.
However, you should always tell your doctor before taking any herbal supplement or over the counter sleep aid.
There are also prescription sleep aids available for the short-term treatment of insomnia.
Less common but more severe side effects include:
- memory loss
- behavior changes, such as becoming more aggressive, less inhibited, or more detached than normal
- depression or worsened depression and suicidal thoughts
- hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t real)
They can also interfere with other medications, including those used for allergies, anxiety, and muscle relaxants.
Additionally, tolerance to these sedative effects can develop quickly and make it less likely that they make you sleepy over time.
According to Miller, “
Behavioral therapy over medications also naturally reduces negative side effects and teaches skills that are useful in other settings.
Insomnia is defined as:
- difficulty falling asleep
- difficulty staying asleep
- early morning awakening at least 3 nights per week
Acute insomnia occurs for up to 3 months, and chronic insomnia occurs for 3 months or more.
Some insomnia is manageable and doesn’t require much beyond a few behavioral changes. Stress is a normal human experience, and it’s common to have a few sleepless nights here and there.
When is it time to see a doctor?
If you’re feeling stressed to the point that it’s consistently affecting your sleep, it may be time to see a doctor.
If you have underlying conditions like depression or anxiety, it’s important to communicate your sleep issues with a mental health professional.
Waking in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep is a common problem. When it happens more often than not, it’s important to make changes.
Good sleep is essential to our physical and mental well-being. A few simple tweaks may be all it takes to sleep soundly.
If you aren’t able to find a solution by changing some habits or environmental circumstances, consider talking with your doctor or seeing a behavioral sleep medicine therapist.
They can help explore the causes and the best ways to resolve your sleep problems.
Ashley Hubbard is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee, focusing on sustainability, travel, veganism, mental health, social justice, and more. Passionate about animal rights, sustainable travel, and social impact, she seeks out ethical experiences whether at home or on the road. Visit her website wild-hearted.com.