How To Fall Back Asleep If You Wake Up In The Middle Of The Night, According To Experts
Getting to sleep on time every night might be a struggle for you, especially if you have a busy schedule. But waking up in the middle of the night when you're in the midst of a relaxing rest can be even more frustrating. According to experts, there are a few tricks you can use to lull your body back to sleep as quickly as possible.
If you occasionally wake up after having an especially disturbing nightmare or because you have to use the bathroom, it's probably nothing to worry about. But you should seek the help of your doctor if you experience disrupted sleep for more than a week, Dr. Anil Rama, MD, a sleep medicine doctor and the medical director and founder of Kaiser Permanente's tertiary sleep medicine laboratory, tells Bustle.
Issues like sleep apnea or periodic limb movement disorder might cause you to wake up in the middle of the night, Rama says. But more mundane issues could also be to blame, like pain, noises, temperature, hunger, and dehydration. If you're waking up in the middle of the night, try to do a quick scan of your body to determine how you feel. Maybe you're very sweaty, and keeping your room cooler could help you stay asleep in the future. Or maybe you are very hungry, and could start having a snack before bed. But if you're ever seriously concerned, check in with your doctor.
Here's what to do if you wake up in the middle of the night, according to experts.
1. Breathe Through Your Nose
If a nightmare has startled you out of your blissful sleep, you're probably not feeling very calm. "Most people awaken with an overactive sympathetic nervous system," Rama says. "This is evident by racing thoughts, fast breathing, and heart rate." In order to lull your body back to sleep, you want to reduce the activity of your sympathetic nervous system. "You could try breathing through your nose, which, as opposed to breathing through your mouth, requires less work," he says. If you wake up feeling anxious, try breathing in slow, deep breaths in and out of your nose until you feel more grounded.
You might think of meditation as a practice you use before you go to bed or first thing when you start your day, but it can also have some major benefits for calming you back to sleep in the middle of the night. Use a guided meditation track designed for sleep, Margo Regan, a sleep therapist and clinical hypnotherapist who specializes in stress and anxiety, tells Bustle. "Meditation slows down your brain waves and you can give yourself suggestions or affirmations to get back to sleep," she says. Plus, focusing your brain on your breath through meditation will keep you from beginning to worry about anything else.
3. Ground Yourself In Your Body
If you've woken up in the dead of night and are having trouble falling asleep, you might begin to toss and turn in your bed in an attempt to find the perfect sleeping position. But stilling your body, as opposed to moving your body, can help you drift away again. "Do a progressive muscle relaxation," Regan says. "This brings your focus into relaxing rather than worrying." Beginning with your toes, slowly scan upwards through each body part, purposefully relaxing it fully as you give it your attention. As you feel the tension leave each area of your body, you'll be putting yourself in a more sleep-conducive state.
4. Read Something Calming
You might be a huge fan of reading thrillers or mysteries that leave you excited to figure out what comes next, but those aren't the kinds of stories you should pick up if you wake up in the middle of the night. "Read a boring book," Regan says. You might try leafing through an old textbook or the fine print of your credit card, but whatever you choose, make sure it's something that you have no interest in reading. If you choose something that activates your brain, you can become wide awake, she says, so stick to a book that slows down your brain activity.
5. Address Your Worries
Sometimes, you might wake up in the middle of the night because you have to pee or you have a nightmare, but other times, worrying might be the thing that's jolting you out of your restful sleep. If that's the case, don't let yourself give in to the worries or try to force yourself to completely shut them out. Instead, address them so that you feel free to sleep again. "If there are any worries on your mind, imagine putting them in a parking lot," Regan says. If mentally picturing tucking them away doesn't work for you, write down the things you're stressing about, she says. The simple act of putting them on paper might help your mind understand that it can rest.
6. Picture A Calming Place
If you've been awake for a while and then begin stressing out about not falling asleep, that stress can keep you up, beginning a vicious cycle. Try not to give yourself a hard time for waking up, but instead, think about a scenario that helps calm you down. "Focus on some pleasant activity such as going to a beach," Terry Cralle, RN, a certified clinical sleep educator and Saatva sleep consultant, tells Bustle. "Don’t just mentally see the beach, but hear the waves and seagulls, feel the sand, and heat from the sun, and smell the salt in the air," she says.
7. Turn On Ambient Noise
Some people seem to be able to sleep through an earthquake or a loud alarm clock without even stirring, but for others, the tiniest sound can jolt them out of a sweet dream. If you're a light sleeper, use a white noise machine or app to make your room quieter. "Transient noises, traffic, the AC cycling on and off, or a dog barking can awaken a sleeper," Cralle says. "White noise can help cover these transient sounds and help you stay asleep." Even if you forget to turn on the ambient noise before you go to bed, be sure to turn it on as soon as you wake up so that your brain can calm down again without constant distractions.
8. Put On A Sleep Mask
"If you wake up in the middle of the night, do not turn on bright lights," Cralle says. Sometimes it's nearly impossible to avoid all lights when you wake up, like if you have to get a drink of water or you need to use the bathroom. But in these situations, do your best to use the lowest light source possible to get there and back safely, she says. Ideally, an amber-colored nightlight will work well. Once you get back to bed, put on a sleep mask, so that any remaining brightness from a digital clock or city lights through the window will be blocked out, Cralle says.
9. Think About Your Dreams
Nightmares might be more likely to wake you up in the middle of the night than a neutral dream would. But if you were dreaming about something that wasn't terrifying, you can use that to lull your mind back to sleep. "It can be helpful to picture any dreams you may remember on waking, as this also helps put you back in the sleep state brain function," Dr. Jacob Teitelbaum, MD, a a board certified internist, sleep specialist, and author of From Fatigued to Fantastic, tells Bustle. Simply do your best to put yourself back in that dream state, and your body will hopefully follow suit.
If you find yourself awake in the dead of night just every once in a while, a sleep-inducing strategy might be all you need to start snoozing again. But if this is something you experience on a regular basis, get in touch with your doctor for help.