Sleep and breathing

The top 5 ways to get back to sleep

Waking up in the middle of the night can seem like a cruel joke.

You went to bed on time and were getting good sleep, but now your body has betrayed you and you’re wide-awake at 3:30 in the morning.

But waking up in the middle of the night isn’t a bad thing at all.

In fact, it’s normal to wake up a few times in the middle of the night as your body cycles from deeper to lighter phases of sleep. The problem comes when you can’t fall back asleep. Here are five ways to make sure you can get all the rest you need, even if you wake up:

1: Sleep like your ancestors did.

Much of what keeps us awake in the middle of the night is the anxiety that comes with it. Will I be able to get enough sleep? Am I going to have another miserable, sleep-deprived day tomorrow? Why can’t I sleep like everyone else? The good news is that it’s normal to wake up for a short time.

Two periods of sleep interrupted by a period of wakefulness was common for our ancestors – it’s been written about for centuries. Called biphasic sleep, it has only gone out of style in more recent times as our busier schedules have demanded we get all of our sleep in one go.

Accepting that periods of wakefulness are normal and healthy can take some of the anxiety away from waking up early and lets you fall asleep faster.

If you consistently wake up in the middle of the night, try going to sleep earlier and being okay with a short period of wakefulness. Keep the lights (very) low and do something restful until you fall back asleep.

The catch is that you need to put aside a bit more time for sleeping. But even if you can’t go to bed earlier, the big takeaway from our ancestors is that it’s healthy to wake up for short periods – don’t let waking up early be another reason you can’t fall back asleep.

2: Keep the lights low, and stay away from screens!

The first thing many of us do when we wake up is get on the phone or open the laptop. Even though it’s the middle of the night, this is like stepping outside on a bright sunny day because of the blue light these devices emit.

According to many, many sleep experts, blue light is a sleep killer.  Even worse, our phones and laptops are ‘blue light enhanced’ to make them seem brighter, meaning they emit even more of these sleep-ruining wavelengths than natural sunlight.

So the best thing you can do to get back to sleep is to stay off your phone.

But who are we kidding? This is the information age. You’re almost certainly going to pick up your phone or computer if you can’t get back to sleep, so if you can’t stay off them you need to keep the light levels low.

For your laptop there is a great free tool called f.lux – it lowers the blue light levels on your monitor at night and it makes a big difference.

For your phone it’s not as easy. For android users there is an app called Twilight that works somewhat like f.lux, but for iPhones it’s not as simple.

Apple has introduced an option called Night Shift that reduces blue light, but it’s not as good as f.lux. The screen is still way too bright. The better option is to go into your settings and reduce the light even more using these tips. You’ll feel the difference right away.

Finally, if you turn on the lights, turn on the dimmest lamp you have to keep your room as dark as possible. Don’t flip on the bright lights or your brain will think it’s time to get up and start your day.

3: Choose your thoughts wisely

Even though we’re surrounded by technology, our biology is still built for times long ago. We carry a fight-or-flight response meant to help us escape saber-toothed tigers and marauding tribesmen, but in modern times this same response is triggered by overdue bills and trouble at work.

Since modern stressors never let up, our bodies’ activation of the fight-or-flight response can become chronic, leading to tough health consequences

One of these consequences is difficulty sleeping, or falling back asleep. That’s why you need to be aware of your thoughts when you wake up in the middle of the night.

Once your mind turns towards the inevitable thoughts of the stressors in your life, your body will start to wake up as your fight-or-flight system takes hold.

If there’s so much stress in your life that you can’t turn your attention away from it here’s a great place to start that comes from the mindfulness movement (but keep reading because you’ll need tips #1 and #2 as well).

As you feel yourself starting to worry about the next day, mentally step back to watch yourself – a good image to use is to imagine that you’re the deep blue sky above the earth, and your thoughts and emotions are clouds moving by.

Without applying judgment, simply watch them move through you until they’re gone. This puts some distance between you and your thoughts and keeps you from dwelling on the same stressful topic.

Finally, if you feel yourself falling asleep, listen to that feeling! The signs of sleepiness are subtle to many people who have trouble sleeping – don’t fight them.

4: Do something boring if you wake up

If you’re just not getting back to sleep (sleep experts recommend giving it at least twenty minutes), you need to do something restful until your body is ready to fall back asleep.

Listening to podcasts is a good choice. They have the benefit that you don’t need to turn on the lights, and you can stay in bed while you listen (but remember to use the tips above to dim your phone’s screen).

The Sleep With Me Podcast is perfectly designed to get you back to sleep. The narrator reads short stories in a calm voice and it’s just interesting enough to keep your attention, but not so exciting that it will wake you up.  (no Dean Koontz or Stephen King).

There are lots of other good ones, depending on your tastes – I enjoy the history podcasts because they’re dense and it’s easy to drift back into sleep with them. Try something like this one on Byzantine History.

It’s dense and calm, and literally Byzantine in its complexity. If you’re anything like me you’ll be taken back to warm high school history classrooms with boring teachers, where you had no trouble falling asleep…

Remember books? They’re what we read before the internet and they can still serve a purpose. The right book is the perfect companion while you wait to fall back asleep. Just make sure to turn on the dimmest light you have and stay away from books that you know will keep you up.

5: Focus on your breath

This is number one because it is just so effective. Focused breathing calms your nervous system and shifts your focus away from the stressful thoughts that will keep you awake. There’s a reason so many different cultures have developed breathing rituals over thousands of years – they work!

There are many different techniques you can follow but they all boil down to about the same thing. Stay focused on something besides your thoughts, like your breath or ensuring your abdomen is moving with each breath, and inhale/exhale slowly and deeply. Here are some of my favorites:

Dr Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 breath: A calming yoga rhythm for your breath that will bring on a relaxed state whenever you use it. The linked page has a lot of good information but the technique is quite simple:

Take a deep breath through your nose over four seconds, hold it for seven seconds, then release it through your mouth over eight seconds, making a gentle ‘whoosh’ sound as your breath leaves.

Dr Weil recommends only doing this exercise four times in a row and when you try it you’ll see why. It’s powerful stuff.

Self Hypnosis: Hypnosis sounds creepy, but really it’s just a state of deep relaxation that you can induce yourself. There a myriad of techniques to bring on this state of deep relaxation, but I like this one best:

  1. Begin taking calm, deep breaths through your nose, and slowly release the air back out through your nose.
  2. Each time you release your breath, focus on the way your body feels and imagine all of your tension slowly flowing out with your breath – from your toes all the way up your body.
  3. Imagine yourself slowly sinking more deeply into the bed with each breath, and your limbs growing heavier.

This can be a good warm up to Dr Weil’s breath or the next technique.

Simply Focus on Your Breathing: Once you’re feeling more relaxed with either of the two techniques above, you can keep that warm relaxed feeling going by simply staying focused on the breath coming in an out of your nose.

As you breath slowly and deeply, feel your abdomen moving with each breath. Anytime your attention wanders, turn it gently back to the breath. And voilà, you’ll feel yourself drifting back to sleep in no time!

So there are five great techniques you can use to get back to sleep. Taking the anxiety away from waking up early and putting your mind in a relaxed state are the keys to squeezing in a few more hours.

The quickest way to calm your racing thoughts and fall back asleep is focused breathing – nothing works better. Sweet dreams!

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