5 Strategies for Returning to Sleep After Waking up at Night

Restoring interrupted sleep.

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Getting a good night's sleep doesn’t just feel refreshing and energizing, it’s also essential for physical and brain health. NBC News explains that trillions of neurons in the brain take advantage of sleeptime to rewire themselves and conduct regular “brain cell maintenance.” Meanwhile, muscle, skin, and immune cells, and other parts of the body also repair themselves during “zzz time.” 

Waking up in the middle of the night can interrupt the deep REM sleep necessary for brain and body maintenance. Here are five ways to “hit the hay” again after waking up in the middle of the night.

Relax the body, brain, and breath
CNN suggests using deep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth, to re-relax and re-enter the sleep zone. To do this, place the hands on the belly and breathe in for a count of six, and out for a count of six, focusing on the stomach’s gentle rising and falling. 

In addition to breathing, those who are having difficulty falling asleep can try relaxing all the muscles. Start by tensing the toes for 10 seconds, then relax. Then the calves, the thighs, and the rest of the muscles in the body, moving from the feet to the head.

If breathing alone doesn’t do the trick, restless dozers can try a guided sleep meditation. Dr. Cynthia Ackrill, a stress management expert, suggested to CNN that some app based meditations “actually embed delta sleep waves.”

“Put it on loop so you don’t wake up,” Dr. Ackrill continued. “Lie there and listen and slow your breathing down. Keep focused on their guidance or if you are just listening to a music/white noise, focus on your breath. Your mind will interrupt — don’t judge it, but keep coming back to your breath.”

Get up and moving
Lying still and breathing deeply can help some restless sleepers relax, but if one is unable to return to sleep after about 20 minutes, Healthline suggests opting for a change of setting. Get out of bed, walk to another room, and engage in a calm activity for a short time. After a few minutes return to bed and it should be easier to get back to sleep.

 Dr Bhanu Kolla, a sleep medicine expert, told CNN that one should try to avoid lying awake in bed for extended periods of time. “We do not want what we call ‘dead time’ in bed, time where you are in bed trying to fall asleep but not sleeping,” Kolla explained. “This tends to cause some frustration and anxiety. In addition we want the bed to be a place that you associate with sleep. The more you do other things including lay awake trying to fall asleep, the weaker this association gets and the more difficult it is to fall back asleep.”

Remove distractions
If the bedroom environment is stimulating it can interfere with returning to sleep. According to Healthline, keeping the lights in the room off and using earplugs or white noise to block out any loud noises in the area. Also, keep the cell phone and other screens off. Lights in the room and blue light that comes from a smartphone screen can reduce the level of melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep cycles) in the body.

Or add some distractions
People who have trouble returning to sleep may benefit from adding calming music, Healthline shares. Or, try completing a really, really boring and non-stimulating task. “Counting sheep” is a cliche, but honestly focusing on it can really help insomniacs return to sleep in the middle of the night.

It’s not your fault
Those with chronic sleep issues may find themselves staring at the 3:00 AM clock dials repeatedly, checking and calculating how much time they have left until morning. CNN reports that this behavior isn’t productive. 

Kolla tells CNN that clock-watching can be overstimulating. “You usually end up trying to determine how much time you have left to sleep and worrying about whether you will fall back to sleep in a reasonable amount of time,” Kolla explained. “This can in fact make the process of returning to sleep more difficult.”

Ackrill adds that, “If you have had the issue for any length of time, you have probably researched or discovered that not sleeping is not good for you. So besides your brain turning on about whatever worries are front and center, you also start repeatedly worrying about the effects of lack of sleep. And as with most worries, you probably judge yourself for it.” “Throw yourself a little compassion,” she told CNN. “It’s not a reflection of your worth.”

For those who have a more difficult time relaxing and letting go of these concerns, writing down one’s fears can be a helpful strategy. “Keep a pad and low light next to the bed and write the list down,” Ackrill suggested. “If that doesn’t work – your mind is really on – get up. Leave the bedroom and do a quick writing dump of worries, thoughts and ideas. If you are really upset, write to exhaustion.”

It can be annoying to wake up in the middle of a deep sleep. If this issue persists and relaxing and other strategies don’t help, one should consult a sleep expert to find the best solutions to help them relax and gain the maximum benefits of a good night’s sleep.

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