Silver Q loves doing research about anything she finds interesting. She hates talking in the third person.
It’s happened to all of us. We finally fall asleep only to be fully awake at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. Then we’re left to struggle with our thoughts, wrestling with our brain for new and creative ideas of how to fall asleep again. And then we all reach for our phones in the hopes that this will lull us back to sleep... even though we know it won’t.
Why do I keep waking up?
The reasons for waking up in the middle of the night are varied and very personal. You may be waking up because you’re worried about messing up the presentation you have at work the next day, or because you’re worried that one-night stand might turn into a crying baby, or because... You get the point.
Worries and anxieties are among the leading reasons for waking up in the middle of the night. Others may include health issues, too much caffeine before bed time, too much food before bed time, etc... But the question remains, how do I fall back a sleep?
The average number of awakenings per night is four or five, if you sleep 8 hours per night.
How Sleep Works
Sleep happens in cycles that last roughly 90 minutes to two hours. That means that we fall into light sleep, followed by deep sleep, then REM (Rapid Eye Movement) and brief awakenings. So if you sleep 8 hours a night, you go through four or five of these cycles per night, which means you experience four or five brief awakenings per night. This doesn’t mean you’re waking up at the end of each cycle. It just means your body is relatively more alert during this phase than in all other phases. You could call it a very shallow sleep. But some people can regain full consciousness, as many of us have experienced during some frustrating nights.
You must also keep in mind that the amount of “sleep” you build during the day can have an impact in the quality of your sleep and the amount of times you regain full consciousness. By “sleep” I mean a cocktail of brain chemicals that will make you fall asleep at night, among them Adenosine.
Adenosine promotes sleep and suppresses arousal. When you’re awake, the levels of adenosine rise each hour. It takes about 16 hours to build up enough adenosine to make you feel sleepy. The longer you stay awake, the more adenosine your body builds.
As we fall asleep, the levels of adenosine decrease, which gradually pushes us into a fully conscious state. Naps can deplete your adenosine levels, which may explain why you can’t sleep at night. What made you feel sleepy right before that nap will have been used, and the chances of building up enough adenosine for bedtime also decrease.
Okay, But What Can I Do To Fall Back Asleep?
Here’s what you can do: Nothing.
The more you fight your brain to fall back asleep, the more you will struggle. Have you tried counting sheep? If so, how successful has that been?
What you shouldn’t do is reach for your phone. The light coming from your phone will tell your brain that it’s day time, and therefore, you should get up, you lazy bum! Not only will the light have an effect on your brain, but the emotional and intellectual stimulus you might get from whatever application you choose to open can also help keep you awake. (Why am I not getting enough likes on Instagram? What did so-and-so mean with this comment, and who does she think she is?!)
Other people choose to be productive with this awake time by getting up to work or read or get a cup of tea. But all these activities are pushing your brain into a further state of awareness, and worse yet, you’re teaching your brain to wake up at the same time next night.
Many people refuse to do nothing because they’ll then be flooded with a barrage of anxious thoughts and feelings. The instinct to try to block all these thoughts requires a lot of mental and emotional energy, which, again, will push you further into a state of consciousness. So...
Caffeine inhibits sleep by blocking the action of adenosine within the brain, which increases wakefulness.
Acceptance and Labeling
I know this may sound like some sort of hippie advice, but acceptance is the way to go. Simply accept that you’re awake and don’t fight it. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be bombarded by anxious and self-demoralizing thoughts. Accept those as well. Don’t judge them.
One activity that might help is labeling these thoughts. “This thought makes me feel nervous. This thought makes me feel scared.” Identify the emotions those thoughts are causing as well as the physical reactions your body is receiving from these thoughts. “I can feel this in my chest, in my head, on my temples...”
Be Aware of Your Sensations
Since you’re just there fully awake with the instructions of doing nothing productive, you might as well start scanning your body. Start with the head and notice any sense you might have there. “I feel a mild itch on my neck. I can feel the fabric of my pillow case against my neck.” And continue scanning all the way down to your toes.
The idea is to anchor your brain to the present moment. You need to let your brain know that you’re not fighting it, that you’re not forcing it. Give yourself permission to be awake, and permission to just be.
Another great anchor to the present moment is breath. But breathe with intention. Notice the way you’re stomach and chest rise and fall when you breathe. Don’t count, just notice. Notice the sensation that breath brings to your body. If you start getting intrusive thoughts, label them and let them go, so you can go back to concentrating on your breathing.
Your Brain Can Be A Real Jerk Sometimes
We all know that fighting against our brain is a losing battle. The more we fight it to get it to try to do or not do something, the more it will stubbornly refuse to do what you tell it to. Sleep, much like love, will come when you’re not looking for it. (At least that’s how my parents explained it, and they weren’t wrong.)
Keep in mind that learning to notice your breath and labeling your thoughts requieres patience and practice. Don’t expect to get desired results on your first try. But the more you practice, the more you’ll learn to pacify your brain into sleeping.
Don’t give up! Keep trying, and happy living!
Lisha C on May 28, 2020:
A very informative article. Thank you for the tips. I will keep them in mind the next time I am unable to sleep—which would probably be tonight!