It’s easy to feel frustrated when you don’t sleep well. Whether your sleep problems relate to not falling asleep easily or to waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go back to sleep (or both), there is hope!
First of all, it’s important to remember that pretty much all of us go through phases where we struggle with sleep. I’ve experienced sleep challenges since middle school, and only over time have I come to develop healthy sleep habits that help me catch the Zs I so desperately need and want. I find that the more tools we have to choose from, the better. You don’t have to use every single one, but see what resonates with you and that you find effective in your own life.
Sleeplessness can be isolating, depressing and exhausting, so it’s really important to be kind, compassionate, and patient with yourself as you work through your sleep challenges. There are various reasons why you might find yourself awake in the middle of the night, including:
- Stress: chronic stress can lead to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol which can disrupt healthy sleep patterns.
- Medications: certain medications, such as antidepressants and stimulants, may disruptt sleep.
- Hormones: shifts in hormone levels can alter one’s circadian rhythm, which is a natural, internal process that regulates the sleep. Women are more susceptible to these hormone shifts than men.
- Alcohol use: the consumption of alcohol can be linked to poor sleep quality and duration.
- Physical pain: chronic pain can cause frequent nighttime wakings and can disrupt one’s ability to fall back asleep.
- Sensitivity to light and sound: whether you sleep like a rock or are sensitive to even the slightest changes in your sleep environment, while asleep our brain continues to register and process changes in light and noise. The subtle changes can cause restlessness and lead to wakefulness in the middle of the night.
- Nighttime anxiety: anxiety is frequently connected to sleeping problems; in fact, excess worry makes it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep through the night.
- Mental and emotional issues: not only does sleep affect mood, but mood and mental states can also affect sleep. Whenever we are agitated, we are more aroused, awake and alert, making it harder to fall and stay asleep.
- Restroom use: it’s fairly normal to wake up to use restroom one to two times per night, but for some it can disrupt sleep enough to cause them to struggle to fall back asleep.
Before we jump into what you can do when you wake in the middle of the night and have a hard time getting back to sleep, let’s review some sleep hygiene basics you’ll want to consider as you prepare yourself and your sleeping environment:
- Temperature: keep the room in which you sleep cool (64-65℉ is the ideal temperature). One way to think about it is that it’s easier to add blankets than shed layers. If needed, use a fan or open a window if you’re unable to adjust the temperature in your room.
- Light: light, in particular blue light coming from screens, can be disruptive to your circadian rhythm because it lowers your melatonin level. Your brain associates light with daytime, and it can interfere with melatonin’s sleep-promoting effects. In a dark environment however, your melatonin level increases which can help you fall asleep.
- Sound: if having some gentle sounds in the background helps you fall asleep, go for it! I’ve found a white noise machine’s sounds to be soothing and comforting. I like to use meditation apps like Headspace (its sleep content is top-notch) and white noise apps set to ambient noise. If you need it very quiet to sleep well however, consider noise canceling headphones.
- Bed activities: it’s best to keep the bed reserved for sleep and sex. When we introduce other activities such as watching tv or working in bed, it can blur boundaries and make it harder to sleep. A couple exceptions that seem to be okay for a lot of people: reading in bed and journaling (more on those in a sec).
- Go to bed when you’re tired: though it’s important to accustom your body and brain to regular sleep and wake times, if you go to bed when you’re not tired and are susceptible to racing thoughts, you might struggle to fall asleep.
Now that we’ve covered some sleep hygiene basics, what are the best tools for going back to sleep if you wake in the middle of the night?:
- Try to go back to sleep: Give yourself 30-45 minutes to try to go back to sleep; if sleep remains elusive, try getting out of bed and moving to a different room or area of the room rather than get overly frustrated as you toss and turn.
- Meditate: With so many meditation methods, pick what feels right to you. As part of this mind-clearing process, I like to take note of my thoughts and feelings because I find that walking alongside them, so to speak, rather than letting myself get sucked into them, helps soothe me back to sleep.
- Journal: if you find yourself in an anxiety loop with thoughts swirling, jot your thoughts down. You might find that getting your thoughts out of your head and onto paper to be very grounding.
- Read: The only “rule” with reading to fall back asleep is to avoid books that will be overly stimulating or that may spike anxiety. To share a personal example, I can’t read anything about food or wellness in bed because it activates my “work brain,” but I’ve found light fiction and memoir to be a good escape. Pick whatever content is relaxing for you.
- Deep breathing: the 4-7-8 breathing technique helps the mind and body focus on regulating the breath, rather than the thoughts keeping you up.
- Sometimes it helps to get out of bed and do something soothing and distracting, like stretching, yoga, pilates, or even taking a quick shower, which has the added benefit of helping reduce your core body temperature.
- Keep your room dark and quiet: as mentioned earlier, we’re sensitive to light and sound even when we sleep. If you find that you need your space to be darker and quieter, try blackout shades, a sleep mask, weighted eye pillows (which can be especially soothing if you hold tension in your face) and earplugs or noise cancelling headphones.
- Turn to your spiritual practice if you have one, as it can help you feel grounded and connected.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol if you find that either is affecting your ability to get to and stay asleep. Both are notorious for disrupting our sleep cycle.
- Supplements: keeping in mind that supplements are so individual and aren’t regulated by the FDA, you do want to take your unique needs into account. That said, melatonin has been shown to be sleep promoting, though its use is intended only for a couple of weeks at a time, not long-term. I also find that magnesium (which I like to call nature’s muscle relaxant) can help with tension and lead to relaxation. As with any supplement, talk to your healthcare provider to make sure it’s okay for you.
- Foods to eat before bed: if you need a snack before bed because you find that hunger is preventing you from falling asleep, eat something small, low in sugar, and easy to digest. Some of the pre-bed snacks I most often recommend include nuts and seeds, oatmeal, a banana with nut or seed butter, hard boiled eggs, yogurt, golden milk made with an unsweetened non-dairy milk, chickpeas or hummus, and tart cherry juice. These foods all have compounds in them that have been shown to play a role in sleep. (Link to Forbes article with more info)
Ultimately, when you’re struggling to sleep, remember to be kind to yourself. I know it’s easy to get mad at ourselves or whatever is preventing us from sleeping, but don’t. If you’re having a tough time, acknowledge it and remind yourself that your sleeping abilities do not define you and that what you’re experiencing is temporary. The more we focus on sleep, the more elusive it becomes, so take the pressure off yourself and try to relax.
If you want to learn more about sleep and the habits which can lead to better sleep, you can check out my book, The Little Book of Game-Changers: 50 Healthy Habits For Managing Stress & Anxiety, where I have a chapter dedicated to how to achieve a good night’s sleep. You can also listen to my solo podcast episode on this topic.