When you wake up in the middle of the night, what’s the first thought that pops into your head? If you tend to have a calm attitude toward nighttime awakenings, you’re more likely to fall back asleep relatively quickly.
If, on the other hand, finding yourself awake in the middle of the night sends you into a panic, you might have a more difficult time falling back asleep. Whether you’re stressed about work or about the sleep you’re missing out on, anxious thoughts have a way of multiplying in the quiet of night and keeping sleep just out of grasp.
In this article, we’ll share some tips for staying calm when you wake up in the middle of the night and techniques that will help you learn how to fall back asleep and shorten nighttime awakenings.
We’ll also explore some common things that contribute to fragmented sleep and tell you how to adjust your daily habits to minimize nighttime wakefulness. Because getting sufficient sleep is the key to having the energy you need to take on the day with success.
Some people may find a detailed list of instructions on how to fall back asleep is exactly what they need. But for others, simply learning that waking up in the middle of the night is completely normal is enough to make a difference in their ability to fall back asleep. It can help ease the anxiety that often accompanies sleeplessness.
Indeed it is normal to wake up during the night. In fact, the notion that all adults should be able to sleep the entirety of their sleep need uninterrupted each night might be a relatively recent development.
According to some historians and sleep experts, for centuries biphasic sleep — two approximately four-hour blocks of sleep separated by a period of wakefulness — was the norm in many parts of the world before the industrial revolution.
For adults today, waking up once or twice during the night is not unusual, especially at certain points in a sleep cycle. In each 60- to 120-minute cycle, you progress through different stages of sleep — from REM to light sleep to deep sleep and back up again.
If something disturbs you at the end of one of those cycles — aches and pains, a full bladder, or a noise, for example — you’re more likely to wake up than when you’re in deep sleep.
Although it’s normal to wake up briefly during the night, multiple or prolonged nocturnal awakenings can prevent you from getting the sleep your body needs. This can have a negative impact on your daytime energy levels, brain function, and overall health.
Low mood, cognitive impairment, and increased susceptibility to accidents and injuries are common signs of acute sleep deprivation. Chronic sleep deprivation increases your risk for diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack, and stroke.
Fragmented sleep clearly takes a toll on the body, but what causes it?
If you’re spending too much time tossing and turning and trying to get back to sleep, your daily habits might hold clues to possible causes.
Coffee as a morning pick-me-up is fine, but when it turns into a nighttime keep-me-up, it’s time to reconsider your routine. Because caffeine’s stimulant effects can last for up to 10 hours, make the 10 hours before bed a caffeine-free period.
Alcohol does have sedative effects, but it’s a lousy sleep aid. That’s because it causes sleep fragmentation during the night. So, for restful results, cut out alcohol 3-4 hours before bedtime.
You don’t have to have indigestion or acid reflux to experience poor sleep when you eat too late at night. Even the process of normal digestion is enough to delay or disrupt the body’s shift into rest-and-restore sleep mode. Our recommendation? Aim to finish large or heavy meals at least three hours before you go to bed.
If you have a fast-paced, always-on lifestyle and don’t take time to mentally decelerate before bed, you may find it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. A nightly wind-down period can help put some distance between you and the stress of the day. Take a warm bath or shower, journal, meditate, or read a chapter of a novel — because better sleep starts with a better bedtime routine.
To help you adjust your habits, the RISE app is set up to send you optional reminders of the ideal cut-off times — based on your own chronobiology — for caffeine, alcohol, and meals.
The RISE app can also help you enhance your wind-down period by adding one or more relaxation techniques to calm your body and mind. At the bottom of the Energy screen, tap “Habits” and then the “+” sign to add a habit. Click “Relaxation” and choose one of the guided recordings for relaxing sounds, progressive muscle relaxation, autogenic training with visualization, or diaphragmatic breathing.
A nightly wind-down period and the timing of your caffeine, alcohol, and food consumption are all part of your sleep hygiene — the upkeep of behaviors that influence the way you sleep. Key to improving your sleep hygiene is getting to know your circadian rhythm.
Like an internal body clock, your circadian rhythm governs your natural sleep-wake cycle and other predictable energy fluctuations in roughly 24-hour periods. Keeping a sleep schedule that lines up with your body’s natural circadian rhythm makes it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. And maintaining circadian alignment can help you get the sleep you need to keep your sleep debt low, ideally under five hours.
Sleep debt is a running total of the hours of sleep you’ve missed — as compared to the sleep your body needed — over the past 14 days. It’s the number that best predicts how you’ll feel and function on any given day.
The RISE app keeps track of your sleep debt and maps your circadian rhythm for you, indicating the ideal wake time and bedtime based on your specific biology. It’s best to go to bed during the window of time labeled your Melatonin Window on your Energy Schedule, since that’s when your body is producing its highest levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.
Because darkness is what prompts the brain to ramp up the production of melatonin in preparation for sleep, limiting and avoiding light exposure — especially bright light and blue light — in the 90 minutes before bed is an important part of getting a good night’s sleep and can help stave off excess nocturnal wakefulness.
If you can’t avoid light altogether, try wearing blue-light blocking glasses as bedtime approaches, especially if you use a computer, phone, or e-reader before bed. And make sure your sleep environment is completely dark. Use an eye mask and blackout blinds or curtains to block out any ambient light.
Being strategic about the timing of your light exposure is vital for circadian alignment, and it starts first thing in the morning. Make a point to expose your skin and eyes to sunlight soon after waking; it will send a signal to the brain to stop producing melatonin. The sun’s warming effect also supports the predictable morning increase in core body temperature that’s a natural part of your circadian rhythm.
On the flip side of that is the natural drop in nighttime core temperature as the body prepares for sleep. Keeping your bedroom cool (65-68 degrees Fahrenheit) will help set you up for the best sleep possible.
To make your space even more sleep-friendly, do everything you can to prevent noises from becoming sleep disturbances. Wear earplugs and use a white noise machine or a white noise app.
Good sleep hygiene is your best weapon against nocturnal wakefulness, but it’s not foolproof. And if you do find yourself staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night, you need a plan. Here are some guidelines on how to fall back asleep.
When faced with a middle-of-the-night sleep interruption, the more accepting and nonchalant you can be in the moment, the better your chances of getting back to sleep. Remind yourself that you’ve managed to fall back asleep probably thousands of times, and have confidence that you can do it again.
If your bladder is full when you wake up, don’t try to will yourself back to sleep. Make a quick trip to the bathroom and get right back into bed. If you’re hot, remove a blanket or adjust the thermostat. If your back hurts, change position or adjust your pillows.
Don’t watch the clock. It will only feed the tendency to worry about and calculate the hours of sleep you’re losing, which can make it even harder to fall back to sleep. And resist the temptation to turn on the lights or pick up your phone or tablet and start scrolling or browsing. The light exposure and mental stimulation will do more harm than good.
Taking slow, controlled, deep breaths may help pull your focus away from anxious or nagging thoughts. Diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing can lower your heart rate and stabilize blood pressure.
In pranayama or 4-7-8 breathing, you control and elongate your exhalations which signals to your brain you’re not in danger and it’s safe to relax. Empty your lungs of air, breathe in for four counts, hold the breath in for seven counts, and exhale slowly and evenly through your mouth, making a whooshing sound for eight counts. Repeat four or five times or until you doze off.
If breathing exercises aren’t cutting it, and you have another preferred relaxation exercise — from the RISE app’s relaxation sessions or elsewhere — try doing an abbreviated version to help you go back to sleep faster. Progressive muscle relaxation, for example, is easy to do lying down. By tensing different muscle groups as you inhale and relaxing them as you exhale, your body becomes less tense, making it easier to fall back asleep.
After about 20 minutes of trying to fall back asleep, your efforts may start to backfire. You don’t want your brain to form an association between your bed and wakefulness, so get out of bed and do something relaxing. Meditate, read a book, listen to soft music, but do not lie down. Wait until you start to feel sleepy, and then get back into bed.
It’s good to be confident in your sleep hygiene habits and in your ability to relax and fall back asleep in the middle of the night. But it’s equally important not to let the occasional night of multiple awakenings derail that confidence.
There is a subtle feeling of relief or liberation that comes with taking a long-term view of sleep health and sleep debt. Because sleep debt is not just about one night but a reflection of the past 14 nights of sleep, one or even a couple of nights of tossing and turning won't tank how you feel and function.
Like other aspects of health and wellness, cultivating habits that promote healthy, naturalistic, non-fragmented sleep is a lifelong practice and not something that can be achieved overnight. Cutting yourself some slack may keep you from falling into a vicious cycle of anxiety and sleeplessness that feed off of and exacerbate each other.
However, if you’ve got your sleep hygiene dialed in and have experimented with a variety of relaxation techniques and strategies but you’re still having difficulty going back to sleep in the middle of the night, talk to your doctor.
An underlying medical condition or mental health issue could be contributing to your nocturnal wakefulness. A sleep specialist can help determine whether you may be suffering from chronic insomnia, sleep apnea, or another sleep disorder.
Just as an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, a handful of good sleep hygiene habits can be more effective than dozens of middle-of-the-night relaxation sessions. And because getting enough sleep is so important for next-day energy levels and overall health and wellness, it makes sense to lay a good foundation for better sleep with good habits.
Still, no matter how stellar your sleep hygiene is, no one is immune to the occasional sleep disturbance. And if you do find yourself wide awake at 3 a.m., have a strategic plan — with the help of the RISE app — for falling back asleep to ease your mind and help you get the shut-eye you need to feel and perform at your best.
Learn more about Rise for sales teams.
RISE makes it easy to improve your sleep and daily energy to reach your potential