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How to Go Back to Sleep

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5 ways to sneak back into slumberland after being thrown out

People who say they sleep like a baby usually don't have one. ~ Leo J. Burke

We've all been there. You're sleeping peacefully and, for no good reason (or was it a door slamming, someone snoring, your fidgeting partner?), you're thrown rudely back into unwanted consciousness. It's the middle of the night... oh no! Now you're wide awake with all those hours of darkness stretching before you! If only you could feel this alert at your proper getting up time!

And what's more, you need to be asleep; tomorrow's a big day at work or you want to look your best for that hot date or you're just bored of needless night time brain whirring:

  • Did I switch the lights off at work?
  • Where is my life headed?
  • Who am I? And can I really live with that wallpaper any longer?
  • How am I going to go back to sleep now?!

Deep sleep is something we all need for physical and mental health. You can check out my other articles on sleep problems (1) for ideas on how to improve your sleep life generally. But here I want to discuss specifically ideas to help you drift back off to sleep after night time awakening.

Briefly, here are a few ideas as to why you might have been waking up in the night wide and alert:

When going back to sleep's all you really want

Sleep is a habitual animal. We get into sleep patterns easily and swiftly. If you do night time shift work, then pretty soon your body expects to be awake at night. Likewise, if you habitually awaken at 4am, this habitual awakening comes to be anticipated be your subconscious mind.

It could be that you've been going to bed too early and actually waking up after you've had enough sleep. For the vast majority of people, the optimal sleep time is between five and seven and a half hours. So you might just be over-estimating how many hours you actually need.

Other reasons for night time waking could be:

  • Alcohol - drinking before bedtime is associated with night time waking, so limit bedtime drinking.
  • Depression - depressed people over-dream (up to three times as much as non-depressed people), get too little slow wave sleep, and so become exhausted. Nature in its wisdom will often try to break this 'cycle of depression' by waking the depressed person early to prevent more over-dreaming (2).
  • A noisy environment. A noisy neighbour getting up to do their postal route can make for disturbed sleep (and anger is not overly soporific, as we know).

So consider these as possibilities as to why sleep seems to fall from your grasp in the wee small hours. But whatever the reasons, the following tips should help you fall back to sleep or (if you've been depressed) fall back into a relaxed, worry-free, replenishing sleep.

1) Don't sweat it!

This is fundamental. Body temperature is vital to healthy sleep. A common cause for night time awakening is a dramatic shift in temperature, either by becoming too cold or too hot.

To fall asleep again, you need to ensure you're comfortably warm; but remember that as you fall asleep, your core body temperature needs to drop a little in relation to the temperature of your extremities - which is why cold feet stop people falling asleep (as well as getting married).

2) Don't try to go back to sleep

Some things just can't be forced. Heaving metal above your head during a gym workout is a force of will; going to sleep isn't. Focus on relaxing. I'll often tell clients that they're better off being awake and relaxed then in the midst of a restless sleep. Sleep is a by-product of relaxation but, paradoxically, sleep doesn't always lead to relaxation if the quality of sleep isn't great.

Do the 'body scan' relaxation and let sleep come as it will:

  • Focus your awareness to the area in the middle of your forehead.
  • Tell yourself that sleep will visit once you've made the right environment for it.
  • Now, starting with your left hand, focus on that hand relaxing and 'watch' in your mind as that relaxation starts to drift up your left arm and, bit by bit, throughout every part of your body.

3) Go back to sleep simply by switching the mind off

What is worrying? Interestingly, the word 'worry' comes from an Old English word meaning 'to strangle' (hunting dogs 'worry' their prey to death...nice!).

Your brain is a problem-solving organ (now there's an opening social gambit at a party!). When we worry, we're looking for solutions (and possibly feeling hopeless about not finding them). Looking for solutions is stimulating - because we're 'on the hunt'. So worrying will keep us awake.

If you find yourself worrying in those tiny hours, what I want you to do is get creative. Take those worries and start to strongly imagine that they have been solved (by whatever magical means). The more outlandish the solution, the better - this is fantasy. It doesn't matter how - a lottery win, a crazy business idea that worked, a fairy Godmother - any creative ideas at all. This will do two things:

  • It will switch your mind from 'hunting' to 'caught' mode. If you really imagine having solved a problem, your mind gets the message it can shut down again and go back to sleep.
  • It will provide you with possible genuine solutions to real problems because of 'out of the box' thinking.

The mind only 'switches off' when it goes off 'hunt mode'.

4) Don't shed light on the matter

Don't switch the light on (unless you can keep any light dim). Light will instantly affect alertness centres in your brain, making you wide awake very quickly. If it is already light (because it's summer or early-waking neighbours are putting all the lights on), then get and use an eye mask (you know, like the one Top Cat used in the cartoon).

It's simple: Darkness equals sleepiness; Light equals wakefulness - at least as far as your brain is concerned.

5) If you really can't go back to sleep, then don't

Most people occasionally find themselves conscious when they'd rather not be. It could be that you are just not tired enough to sleep - just as when sometimes you're really just too full to eat any more. If so, then switch on the light (preferably not too bright) and read. Reading is a great way of focussing the mind; and in our busy, digital, deadline-driven world, we seldom get the quiet to just focus in this way. If you are tired but prone to worry, then reading is also a great distraction.

Sometimes some of these tips will work and at other times others will too. Mix and match until something works for you reliably, and pretty soon you won't have to think about it at all.

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Published by Mark Tyrrell - in Sleep Problems