For many people, sleeping isn’t easy. Roughly 70 million Americans suffer from some kind of sleep disorder, according to the Cleveland Clinic, and around 100 million people in the U.S. don’t typically get enough sleep. The problem has become even more pronounced during the pandemic.
But even if you don’t suffer from a diagnosable sleep disorder, you’re no doubt familiar with the experience of awaking in the middle of the night and struggling to find sleep again. This isn’t full-blown insomnia, but rather a condition that doctors call “sleep maintenance insomnia,” and it definitely comes with own particular brand of misery.
There are several strategies you can try out when your nights grow choppy and sleep is in short supply. Hopefully, one of them — or a combination of a few — will make drifting back to sleep an easier, stress-free endeavour.
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Don’t fixate on the time
Chances are good you woke up in the middle of the night because you’re anxious about something. Don’t compound your worry by watching the clock tick away your chances at feeling rested the next day. That’s only going to add to the mental strain of fighting to get rest.
Instead, avoid looking at the time on your phone (you want to ignore your phone for multiple reasons, but more on that later). If you have an alarm clock, turn it around so you can’t see the time. What you need is tranquility, and stressing about what time it is will not help you find it.
Limit blue light exposure and screen time before bed
While it’s nice to unwind before bed with a little casual Instagram swiping, the blue light emitted by your phone can present a dilemma for the production of melatonin, the hormone largely credited with controlling the human body’s sleep/wake cycle.
While light of any kind can suppress the secretion of melatonin, blue light at night does so more powerfully. Harvard researchers and their colleagues conducted an experiment comparing the effects of 6.5 hours of exposure to blue light to exposure to green light of comparable brightness. The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours).
To that end, try putting your phone away for the night an hour before you plan to fall asleep — or, at the very least, adjusting its settings to dim the screen and limit blue light emissions in the hours before bedtime. That way, your brain will have a fighting chance of producing the melatonin necessary to nod off naturally. Though we are tethered to our devices, putting your phone or tablet away before bed is important, and failing to do so will likely put you at a disadvantage when it comes to falling — and staying — asleep.
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Relax your muscles and your mind
Obviously, this is the prevailing conundrum when chasing elusive slumber: You know you need to relax, but the annoyance of waking up in the middle of the night is inherently agitating. Against all odds, you must relax in order to drift off once more.
Try deep breathing exercises, counting backwards, or a muscle relaxation routine, among other strategies. Per Johns Hopkins University, a good option involves “progressive muscle relaxation,” as described below:
Work your way through the different muscle groups in your body (e.g. arms, legs, torso, face) tensing the muscles in each group at about three-quarters strength for approximately five seconds before releasing the tension all at once. Skip any muscles that hurt and try to isolate the muscles as you contract them instead of, for example, tensing your chest muscles when you’re focusing on your arms. Take slow, deep breaths in between muscle groups.
Get up and go to another room, then try sleeping again
Many experts advocate a 20-minute rule — that is, if you’ve been aimlessly lying in bed for 20 minutes, get up, go somewhere else in your home, and do something soothing.
You can read a book, do a crossword puzzle, leaf through a magazine, listen to an audiobook or podcast — anything that might make you tired again. Some experts suggest deliberately choosing an activity you find boring, since you’re more likely to fade off into a snooze if you’re more bored than stimulated.
The key is to go into another room of the house to do this, however — staying in bed, “will lead your brain and body to associate your bed with wakefulness instead of with sleep,” according to Luis F. Buenaver, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Johns Hopkins.
Don’t drink alcohol before bed
Drinking alcohol can also have an adverse effect on your chances of achieving sustained sleep. Yes, alcohol is a depressant that slows down brain activity and makes you feel slow and heavy, but it can have the reverse effect once you’ve actually fallen asleep.
As the neurologist Bhanu Kolla of the Mayo Clinic told CNN:
As alcohol is metabolised it forms acetaldehyde which is stimulating. Therefore if you drink too much alcohol right before going to bed, in about four hours it is converted to aldehyde which can disrupt sleep and wake you up.
Trying a few of these as measures, on their own or in tandem with one aother, might not immediately take care of your nighttime wakefulness, but over time, they will help you create a routine that will reliably get you back to sleep before the sun comes up.