Waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep can be a frustrating, if not maddening, experience. If you’ve ever laid in bed during the wee hours of the night watching the hours tick by one by one then you know what I’m talking about. Luckily, today we will be covering some strategies you can use to help you fall BACK to sleep.
In all actuality, waking up in the middle of the night is quite common. Many of us will wake up multiple times a night but we may not be aware of this at the moment or even remember it the next day. Johns Hopkins Medicine estimates that 1 in 5 Americans have difficulty getting back to sleep.
So what do we do about it? Check out the strategies below to help you the next time you find yourself awake and not able to fall back to sleep:
Don’t Watch the Clock (or Phone)
Turn your clock so it faces away from you and you fight the urge to check the time on your phone if you wake up. Counting down the minutes or hours you have before you have to get up and start your day can increase stress and anxiety, which can lead to delaying your slumber even longer. Not to mention that checking your phone, laptop, or tablet can cause exposure to blue light. Blue light emitted from technology has been shown to restrain the production of melatonin, which helps to manage our sleep and wake cycles.
Make Sure You’re Comfortable
Check-in with your environment; is your room too bright? Are there sounds distracting you? Is the temperature too hot or cold? The ideal bedroom temperature for sleeping is around 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Many households set higher than optimal temperatures which can contribute to the lower quantity/quality of our sleep. Our core body temperature needs to drop around 2-3 degrees Fahrenheit to initiate sleep, which is why some people may report they find it difficult to fall asleep during a heatwave or the summer months.
Sound preference will often vary from person to person. Some people may enjoy having some background noise while sleeping, while others need complete silence. If you are someone who needs some noise there are many apps that can provide soothing sounds like the ocean, rainfall, birds chirping, or white noise.
Rooms that are too bright, either by natural or artificial lights, can impose additional challenges to falling asleep or staying asleep. Light from lamps, street lights, and especially blue light emitted from technology, can slow the production of melatonin which is a chemical that signals to our brain and body that it is time for sleep. We will dive more in-depth into this topic over the next coming weeks.
Try a Relaxation Exercise
As mentioned earlier, an increase in stress or frustration after waking up does us more harm by delaying sleep even longer. Utilize a short relaxation exercise, preferably not one that you need a phone or app for due to blue light exposure (if you do need it, try lowering the backlight to the lowest setting). One of my personal favorites is Progressive Muscle Relaxation: work your way through the different muscle groups in your body (e.g. arms, legs, torso, shoulders, face) by tensing the muscles in each group and holding that tension for about 5 seconds before releasing the tension all at once. Take slow, deep breaths throughout the exercise or if you want to take the relaxation up a notch practice inhaling when you clench your muscles and exhaling slowly and completely as you release the tension. The progression can be adjusted for each person, including skipping any muscles that cause pain.
If you need more examples, consider checking out the mindfulness section of our Operation Health@Home website.
Get Up & Get Out of Bed
If you can’t fall back to sleep after 15-20 minutes, try getting up and out of bed. At first, this may seem counterintuitive. You may be thinking, “I want/need to go back to sleep, why are they telling me to get up?” The idea behind this is that the more time we spend awake in bed, whether it be tossing and turning, watching TV, reading, or watching the clock, our brain and body begins to associate the bed with wakefulness instead of sleep.
Once you get up, maybe you move to the living room or another chair in your bedroom and do something relaxing like reading a book, doing a crossword puzzle, listening to quiet music; anything that feels relaxing and return to bed only when you feel drowsy. You may need to repeat this throughout the night if you wake up again.
Trust me, I know how difficult it can be to leave a warm, comfortable bed during a cold winter night in New England but consider this as an investment in better sleep – if not tonight, then tomorrow and for the future.
Like many things in life, these strategies will take time and repetition before you start to see the reward. It can feel discouraging to not see immediate results but try to give these strategies a few weeks of use before evaluating if they have been effective for you. If after trying these strategies you are still struggling, consider checking in with a therapist or doctor for individualized treatment options.
If you have trouble sleeping or would like to learn more about how mental health affects sleep, please reach out to us! Visit homebase.org/connect2care to learn more about our clinical programs or call (617) 724-5202.
About the Author: Erika Lundgren, LCSW, is a clinical social worker at Home Base. She completed her Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitation Services at the University of Maine at Farmington and her Masters of Social Work at the University of New Hampshire. Erika previously worked at the Manchester VA providing support and resources to veterans and their caregivers within the Caregiver Support Program. She also completed an internship at the Krempels Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of people living with brain injury, facilitating groups, and offering support services for new members.