Five ways to deal with middle of the night insomnia
When we talk about insomnia, most people picture someone tossing and turning, desperately trying to fall asleep at night.
While difficulty falling asleep plagues many, waking in the middle of the night can be just as troublesome.
Both issues are known as insomnia, though people who wake in the night often don’t realise that’s what’s happening, says Health Psychologist Dr Moira Junge.
If you find yourself wide-awake at 3am, don’t stress. Instead, follow these expert tips:
1. Realise it’s normal
“Waking during the night is part of normal sleep,” reassures specialist sleep doctor, Dr David Cunnington. He says it usually occurs at the end of sleep cycles.
Waking isn’t a problem, per se. The issue is how you deal with it. If you stress about being awake, or focus on worries, you’ll wind yourself up and have difficulty falling back asleep.
Instead, remind yourself that what you’re experiencing is normal, and is “a transient state”, says Dr Junge.
2. Reduce your overall stress levels
The idea that you need to ‘unwind’ before bed is drilled into people who struggle to fall asleep at night.
But those who wake in the middle of the night often assume they don’t need to follow such advice. After all, they have no problem heading to the land of nod.
However, Dr Cunnington says winding down before bed is just as important for those who wake in the night.
He explains that after a few hours, sleep becomes lighter. “And if you’re having trouble switching off, you’re more likely to awaken.”
Relaxing before bed (which could include having a warm bath or reading quietly), allows your mind to be calmer. So if you do wake up, you’re more likely to quietly slip into slumber again.
3. Don’t go to bed too early
People who struggle with middle of the night waking are often “seduced” by the fact that they can fall asleep whenever they want, says Dr Cunnington. Hence they go to bed early, to try to ‘catch up’ on the sleep they assume they’ll miss later that night.
Unfortunately, that “only exacerbates the problem”.
Instead, he recommends ‘holding off’ your bedtime.
If you go to bed later than usual – and when you’re actually feeling sleepy – you’ll then have a better chance of sleeping through the night.
This method is called simplified sleep restriction (SSR), and research published in the British Journal of General Practice in August 2015 showed it to be an “effective” intervention for people with insomnia.
4. Only try to go back to sleep when you’re actually feeling sleepy
When you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, it’s tempting to just lie there willing sleep to return. That will simply worsen your problem, warns Dr Junge.
“Once someone is ‘trying’ to sleep they are likely to accidentally ramp up their arousal.”
That arousal may occur in the form of frustration (why aren’t I asleep already?), anxiety (how will I function tomorrow on so little sleep?), or despair (why does this keep happening to me?).
Though it seems counter-intuitive to get out of bed in the middle of the night, Dr Junge recommends doing just that. Then, she advises engaging in a non-stimulating activity, like reading a book.
She says you should only return to bed when you’re actually feeling sleepy, not just because you’re worried about the time.
5. Stop coming up with ‘strategies’ to help you sleep
For those with a routine in place to ‘help’ you fall back asleep, Dr Junge’s advice may come as news: “The subtle trick is to know that sleep comes to you, you don’t chase it”.
Once you understand that, she says you can then stop “searching and pleading” for sleep, and instead “change your thinking towards providing the right conditions for allowing sleep to come back”.
One way to do this is to distract your mind from thinking about sleep, says Dr Cunnington.
(That’s where methods like counting sheep come in. Those leaping lambs aren’t there to lull you to dreamland; rather, they’re there to keep your mind off trying to fall asleep).
Or, says Dr Junge, free your mind from chatter.
The aim, she says, is to have a “quiet mind that accepts wakefulness philosophically… not a mind full of strategies for striving to get back to sleep”.
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