If you are one of the millions of people who doze off for a couple hours or so, only to awaken in the night, often struggling to get back to sleep, you’re not alone!
For many, the inability to get the sleep that’s needed to wake up refreshed takes the form of “sleep-maintenance insomnia” — that is, difficulty staying asleep, waking too early and struggling to get back to sleep.
The quality and amount of sleep you get each night affects literally every moment of your day. Here are steps you can take to get the sleep you need through the night including ways to fall back asleep, should you awaken during the night.
Maintain a schedule: Sticking to a routine sleep schedule every night is key. After an unrestful sleep night (or break in your schedule, like days off), reestablishing that schedule will help your body re-sync or stay-in-sync with its natural rhythm. Be vigilant not to perpetuate bad sleep habits by breaking your schedule, like sleeping-in or napping in the middle of the day after a rough night of sleep.
Doing so may perpetuate waking up the next night. What works best is to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day.
Some restless sleepers believe they cannot fall to sleep or sleep through the night. Make it your intention to be a great sleeper — making it the start of your new day and establishing the behaviors you need by sleeping well.
Good sleep hygiene. Your daytime habits will help you achieve a restful slumber. Most of us do not come with an “on” and “off” button when it comes to sleep. Find ways to calm yourself so you can “drift” off (e.g., relaxing activities like listening to music, meditation/prayer, or reading).
• Your sleep environment should be comfortable and restful: temperature not too hot or too cold; quiet and restful (pets, noises), and a pillow that fits your body’s needs.
• Start powering down and unplugging from your day (and screens) at least an hour before going to bed. Relax!
• Avoid heavy exercise a few hours before bedtime.
• Caffeine is a stimulant. Coffee as well as tea, soda, chocolate, and energy drinks contain caffeine that can take several hours to clear from your system. Aim to take your last caffeine dose 8 to 10 hours before bedtime.
Avoid lights. Light negatively affects your melatonin levels and increases your alertness. Televisions, laptops, smartphones, tablets and gadgets emit light that can hijack your body’s sleep-awake clock. And if you wake-up in the night, resist the urge to check your phone, browse messages, social media, the internet or turn on the TV.
Don’t clock watch. Tempting as it may be to look at a clock when you awaken, doing so can make you feel anxious about losing sleep with only “x” or “y” amount of time left before you must rise. Anxious thoughts cause your body’s stress hormones to rise and this is the opposite of what you want (or need) for sleep. Consider turning your clock away or placing it in a drawer, to avoid seeing it.
Limit movement. When waking up in the night, try to stay in your sleep position if you don’t need to get up. Movement activates your body and your brain. And if feel the urge to get some things done (e.g., laundry, reply to emails, or check a project), don’t do it! It can actually become a pattern your body may repeat the following night and the next …breaking your schedule.
Have a go-to relaxation technique. Sleep experts recommend finding a relaxation technique that works for you, that you can practice during the day.
If you do wake up, go right to your technique. It’s important to have practiced so your mind and body are already conditioned to relax. Effective techniques while lying down in bed include:
• Meditation. A practice in which you focus your mind on a particular object or relaxing thought. There are many types, including focusing on your breathing, repeating a calming word like “love” or a short phrase, prayer, imagining a place that makes you happy, or easing your muscles
• Progressive relaxation. Slowly flexing your muscles starting from head-to-toe, toe-to-head, or left to right for 5 seconds and then relax them.
If you experience sleep-maintenance insomnia that lasts longer than a month or so or if disruptive sleep is interfering with your daytime activities, talk to your physician.
The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked even greater havoc on people’s sleep with more reports of people awakening during the night.
While you can’t control the pandemic, you can control your response. Improving your sleep is one of the healthiest responses of all!
Dr. Nina Radcliff, of Galloway Township, is a physician anesthesiologist, television medical contributor and textbook author.
Email questions for Dr. Nina to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Dr. Nina” in the subject line.
This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional.