The One Thing To Do If You Wake Up & Can't Fall Back Asleep

A few years ago, I started waking up in the middle of the night, almost every night. This came as a shock, because prior to this, I had been able to quickly fall asleep anywhere and anytime — in a moving vehicle, at a fairly quiet Starbucks, while in the middle of explaining the plot of Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World. So finding myself wide-awake and restless come 3 a.m. each night was alarming (and, of course, exhausting).

After doing some research (typically conducted while wide-awake and restless at 3 a.m.), I realized that a bout of work-related drama had left me with a case of something called "sleep maintenance insomnia" — which the Mayo Clinic's website describes as "midsleep awakenings [that] often occur during periods of stress." And while most people associate the word "insomnia" with folks who have a hard time falling asleep to begin with, many of us have trouble with waking up in the middle of the night — whether it's a chronic problem, or just the result of having one glass of wine too many with dinner — and there's far less easily accessible information about that out there. So here's the technique that works for me the most often, and which is recommended by sleep specialists the world over: if you wake up in the middle of the night, and find that you are still awake after more than 20 minutes, get out of bed.

I know, I know — totally counter-intuitive, right? But I'm not making this up: among other sleep tips given on the Mayo Clinic's website, they suggest "If you wake up and can't fall back to sleep within 20 minutes or so, get out of bed. Go to another room and read or do other quiet activities until you feel sleepy."

It's actually a cognitive behavioral therapy trick. As the National Sleep Foundation describes it: "Lying in bed awake can create an unhealthy link between your sleeping environment and wakefulness. Instead, you want your bed to conjure sleepy thoughts and feelings only." Many sleep specialists think that sleep problems, especially chronic insomnia, have to do with our thoughts and feelings about sleep — and lying in bed, watching the clock, and fuming about how you're still awake helps create negative associations between your bed and sleep that can stress you out in the moment and possibly even impact your sleeping patterns later on.

So what should you do after those 20 minutes tick by? Get out of bed, go into another room, and utilize the tips below:

1. Don't Use Electronic Devices

I know, I know, this sounds basically impossible — like, what are you supposed to do, go into another room and churn butter? But you should try to stay away from that phone: "the light from [electronic device] screens can alert the brain and make it harder to fall asleep," notes the National Sleep Foundation. If you wake up in the middle of the night a lot, I would suggest keeping a fairly light book on hand to dip into (I have been reading Mindy Kaling's new book, Why Not Me , in this fashion over the course of my insomniac interludes the past several months).

And what if you're an ultra-glamorous, design-oriented-type person, who doesn't keep paper books or magazines around the house because they would mess with the clean lines of all your impeccable Danish Modern furniture? Well, if you absolutely, positively cannot stay off your phone, even though it will keep you awake, consider downloading a program like F.lux or Twilight, which tones down your device's blue lights in the evening hours — according to the Harvard Health Letter, "blue light is a potent suppressor of melatonin," the hormone your body needs to fall asleep.

2. Do Not Look At The Clock

Again, this may sound ridiculous at first glance — like, should you also not look at your bank statement so that you can pretend you didn't spend half your paycheck on one of those at-home deep-fryer contraptions? — but the theory behind it is sound. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Clock-watching causes stress and makes it harder to go back to sleep if you wake up during the night."

Think back on the last time you couldn't sleep in the middle of the night — did watching every sleepless minute pass by help you fall asleep? Or did it just make you more and more anxious?

So if you're up in the middle of the night, don't check the clock on your phone (which you weren't supposed to be looking at anyway) and if you have freestanding clocks in the area where you're reading, turn them around, hang a beach towel over them, drape some casual knitwear separates across them, whatever — just don't sit there, staring and feeling every sleepless second pass by.

3. Do Some Relaxation Exercises

When I wake up in the middle of the night and realize that I can't get back to sleep, my brain starts getting angry. In its weakened sleep-deprived state, it is petty and childish, urging me to prank call former bosses and bubbling up thoughts like, "I only make 70 cents to a man's dollar, AND they cancelled Hannibal even though it was really critically acclaimed and definitely making some headway in the ratings, AND I can't fall asleep? THIS WORLD IS BULLSH*T!!!!!"

Though all of those facts may technically be true, getting riled up will not get you back to sleep. So instead of giving in to the unbalanced demands of your sleepy brain (which will only keep you from falling asleep), give some relaxation techniques a shot. You can focus on your breathing, or try the old classic move where you focus on all the different muscle groups in your body in sections, from your toes to your face, lightly tensing each of them for five seconds and then releasing them. I have a friend who counts to 100 over and over and essentially bores himself back to sleep. It doesn't matter what technique you use (and you may have to try a few to find what works for you); what matters is that you try, instead of just throwing in the towel and accepting your fate. Everyone deserves a good night's sleep — even neurotic messes like you and me.

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