There is a crack in my bedroom ceiling that has an uncanny resemblance to Richard Nixon’s famous profile. I discovered this while staring at my ceiling at 3 a.m., trying to evoke the ever-elusive sandman. We’ve all had those nights of waking up and not being able to get back to sleep, feeling helpless to do anything but agonize over how lost sleep will affect us the following day.
Of course, counting sheep has been prescribed as a cure for insomnia since the phrase’s first recorded use in 1854, and I’m sure it works for some. For me, however, the tedium and mental activity only frustrates me and makes a peaceful night’s rest seem farther away. Instead, I’ve developed a battle plan for combating insomnia when I wake up in the middle of the night. It doesn’t involve sheep or former Presidents, but it does work.
Chasing Sleep, Not Counting Sheep
When I find myself lying awake, I take a mental survey of my body and assess how I am feeling. Unlike screaming infants (a cause of insomnia I can’t help you with), our bodies do tell us pretty clearly what they need—if we know how to read them. Imagine a laser scanning from your head down to your feet and doing a full system check. Do I feel tired? Do I feel hungry? Do I need to use the bathroom? Am I lying in an uncomfortable position? Although culprits like sleep apnea, caffeine, alcohol, stress, and some medications might be causing your sleep interruption, it’s more likely that you’ve woken up because of a bodily need calling for attention, so the first step to getting back to sleep is to make your body comfortable again.
Give yourself a grace period of about twenty minutes to allow your body to fall back into sleep before deciding on any activity more involved than a midnight potty trip. It’s easier to nod off again if your muscles are relaxed and still in sleep mode. Getting up to check email or turn on the TV will further awaken your body, so it’s best to avoid any activities that involve mental concentration and the potential for stress. Even though they might seem like the perfect solution to midnight boredom, they only pull you farther out of a restful state and make getting back to sleep harder. For that matter, try not to toss and turn too much. Beyond finding a more comfortable position, too much physical agitation will chase away the ZZZs.
You’re Up. Now What?
If, after twenty minutes (the usual amount of time one’s body takes to regulate itself), you haven’t fallen back to sleep and can’t stand lying in bed any longer, choose an activity that will relax rather than distract from sleep.
- Brew a soothing cup of tea (chamomile is best) or try placing a warm towel over your eyelids. The heat will comfort you and lull you back to sleep.
- Aromatherapy scents like lavender, peppermint, and sage are also very soothing.
- Relaxing yoga poses like child’s pose, happy baby, or goddess pose can help settle restless energy.
- Yawn, even if you don’t feel like it. Your brain associates this behavior with tiredness, triggering receptors to tell your body to go to sleep.
However, if none of these suggestions work for you, don’t worry. Your body might be telling you that it doesn’t need that much sleep. Although there is recent buzz about the health consequences of sleep deprivation, it is also true that people need different amounts of sleep. Just as we all have slightly different metabolic rates, we also differ in the amount of sleep we need to recharge. Seven to eight hours is the recommended average, but it is not a one-size-fits-all number.
Rather than lying awake stressing about not meeting the standard requirement for nightly sleep, have confidence that your own body will tell you when it’s tired and when it’s not. Similarly, we all have our own sleep rhythms, so marching to your own circadian drummer might also end the mid-evening waking. After many nights of waking up repeatedly at 5 a.m. and not being able to go back to sleep, I decided to switch things around in my schedule so that I would wake up at five and go to the gym before work. I found that my body was naturally very awake at that time and that the activity helped me sleep better in the evening. After years of a college routine in which 2 a.m. was a reasonable bedtime, I never considered myself a morning person. It seemed my body had its own schedule in mind.
Sleep is supposed to be the most restful part of your life, so if waking up in the night is a symptom of or a cause for stress, experimenting with your routine and bedtime activities might help you cope and get back to sleep. A night without Nixon’s profile is well worth it.