How often do you wake up in the depths of the night? Do you roll over and soon fall asleep again, or does your busy mind have other ideas?
The best time to be worrying about life’s trials and tribulations probably isn’t at 4 a.m. in the dark. Yet, we seem to do just that more often than we’d like to.
Whatever the initial reason is that you woke up, worrying about it happening can keep you awake even longer. It’s a vicious circle that I used to find myself stuck in several times a week.
And even though I still regularly wake up long before the dawn chorus, I’ve developed some effective coping strategies.
This type of sleep disturbance is sometimes called sleep maintenance insomnia. It can be frustrating and lead to sleep deprivation, which as you may already know only too well, is far from ideal for your overall well-being.
For me, it was reading a fascinating new perspective about late-night wakings not necessarily being such a bad thing that helped me stay calmer when it happened.
The idea is to accept that it just happens to some people. Understand and accept that you can still get enough sleep to be at your best. And learn to fill that waking time better, rather than ruin the rest of your sleep through stressing about it.
I’ll be looking at that theory in more detail later in the article. But first, I think it’s useful to first go over some of the main reasons people tend to wake up.
As much as accepting it can help in some circumstances, there are also many causes for nocturnal wakings that can either be fixed with simple adjustments to your life, or that require medical treatment.
If none of those apply to you though, perhaps the later section will prove as useful to you as it did to me.
Why do we wake up in the night unexpectedly?
Your nocturnal wakings might be caused by an underlying condition or lifestyle choice. Identifying that cause and dealing with it appropriately might help you sleep in longer blocks.
Some causes can be addressed yourself with self-help or lifestyle changes. Others might need the help of a medical professional.
Let’s take a look at some possible explanations:
1. A sleep disorder
Some sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, can cause nocturnal wakings. If you, or anyone else, notice any irregularity with your breathing in the night or you snore loudly, it’s important to speak to your doctor.
The sleep disorder narcolepsy, which causes people to fall asleep uncontrollably during the day can lead to waking randomly too. If this happens to you, it’s important to seek medical advice.
While some people will wake up from time to time, for others it can be a sign of insomnia. If it’s a chronic problem for you, and affecting your life, then it’s a good idea to practice good sleep hygiene and speak to your doctor about it.
2. An underlying mental health issue, anxiety or stress
There’s a range of mental health issues which can lead to sleep problems. People who suffer from anxiety or stress, for example, can have disturbed sleep. And when that flurry of thoughts and worries arrives, it can be hard to fall asleep again.
3. Needing to go to the bathroom
There are several reasons why you may need to wake up to use the toilet, such as:
- Drinking too much liquid before bed.
- Men with an enlarged prostate.
- Overactive bladder or bladder prolapse.
- Some medications.
If you struggle to control your bladder at night or during the day, it might be worth asking your doctor to check for an underlying condition. It might also help to stop drinking liquids in the two to three hours before bed.
Alcohol can trigger wakings for several reasons:
- Alcohol withdrawal can wake you up, particularly if you drink heavily on a regular basis.
- Excessive liquid can lead to the need to run to the bathroom.
- Alcohol can have an effect on the time spent in different sleep stages.
Whether it’s a partner snoring, sleep talking, grinding their teeth, or the traffic outside rumbling away, noise can disrupt many people’s sleep.
It’s a huge problem for me personally. And despite the existence of a myriad of clever ways to block out noise, for me, simple foam earplugs are usually the most effective.
If this is an issue for you, you might find it useful to read my other tips for reducing bedroom noise.
6. Hunger, thirst, and indigestion
Hunger, thirst, and indigestion can all cause problems at night. For some people, it might help to have a little to drink before bed, but only enough to keep you hydrated – not so much that it contradicts what I said in point 3 too much!
Try to eat your main meal earlier in the day and only have a light snack before bed if you’re hungry. And if you have eaten a heavy or rich meal before bed, perhaps eat a yogurt or take a calcium-based tablet to stave off any indigestion problems.
7. Bad dreams or other parasomnias
Children and adults alike can be woken up by nightmares or other disturbing events in their sleep. If this is an issue for you, it might help to read my article about nightmares.
8. You change shift or time zone
It’s very common for shift workers to have problems with their sleep. Doctors, nurses, pilots, flight attendants, and frequent international business travelers, to name just a few, will know how hard it can be to quickly adjust to a change in their shift, time zone, or sleep patterns.
There’s plenty of self-help advice available for shift workers. One good starting point is the UCLA website, which has a useful guide for shift workers.
Could waking up in the night be part of a normal sleeping pattern?
Let’s go back to the point I made at the start of the article. Is it really so bad to wake up in the night, as long as you manage to get enough sleep overall?
Back in the 1990s, the psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted a study in which he kept participants in darkness for 14 hours a day for one month.
This was to follow as closely as possible the natural cycle of day and night, where we experience 14 hours of darkness on an average day (depending on where and when you live).
Once they had managed to establish a sleep pattern, it became evident that they would sleep for 3-5 hours, then wake up for 1-3 hours. After that, they would sleep again for another 3-5 hours.
It appeared that their natural sleep cycle was to wake up in the night, but not at the cost of less sleep overall.
An interesting point of view is that before electricity was harnessed, many people probably had more time available for sleeping at night. And the natural reaction to the long, dark night was to have segmented sleep.
The hours of darkness have greatly reduced in the modern world due to the availability of lighting, as well as an ever-increasing drive towards efficiency.
So in our fast-paced day and age, we’ve compressed how much time we allow for sleep and try to get it all done in one block.
Wehr’s study showed that people might prefer to sleep in two phases though. So if you have an inability to sleep through the night, perhaps all is not lost.
This theory is further backed up in a book published in 2005 by the historian Roger Ekirch (At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past).
Nighttime wakings throughout history
Ekirch’s book contains hundreds of references to historical descriptions across the globe of sleeping in two phases.
From the authors Homer, Dickens and Cervantes to medieval medical books and anthropological reports of the Tiv tribe in Nigeria, it’s a fascinating account.
There are descriptions of people doing varied activities in the early hours of the morning, such as relaxing, talking, reading and writing. Some would get out of bed to practise their religious beliefs, visit family or neighbors; others would try to conceive.
Curiously, Ekirch notes that the term ‘sleep maintenance insomnia’ first appeared during the industrial revolution at the end of the 19th Century. And that’s also when references to segmented sleep all but disappeared.
It’s okay if you wake up for a while
Sleep psychologist Greg Jacobs agrees that it’s normal for people to wake up in the night. And that this was how we slept naturally until recently.
He’s joined by a growing number of scientists who believe that it might even be counterproductive to believe you must get a solid seven hours’ sleep, every night. This expectation could cause anxiety, panic and stress when your sleep doesn’t go according to plan.
Jacobs suggests that the short waking during the night could have been an important time for people to regulate stress. In the dark hours, they were forced into a period of relaxation and meditation.
So what can we learn from this idea of sleeping in two phases? The first thing to take away is the concept of not worrying about sleeping right through the night.
As long as you have enough sleep either side of this period, my view is that it doesn’t matter if you spend some time awake at 3 a.m. – especially if the quantity and quality of sleep are not having an adverse effect on your day-to-day life.
So perhaps it’s time to decide what to do with that time you spend awake.
What to do during that time awake?
So what should you do with this quiet time? Well, that’s up to you to decide. But I’d recommend an activity which is relaxing, calm and not overstimulating. It’s probably not the best time to check in on work, play Fortnite on your phone or watch a horror movie.
Here are some ideas to try:
- Relaxation exercises
- Quiet, calm reflection
- Practice your religious belief
- Gentle yoga
- Mindfulness exercises
- Listen to the radio or a quiet podcast (my personal favorite is ‘Get Sleepy’)
- Just spend time enjoying how comfortable your bed is, how warm and safe you feel. Focus your attention on how nice it feels to be tucked up in bed.
The key is to spend your wake time positively, doing or thinking about something that makes you feel good. Don’t just lie there and expect your brain to be quiet and switch off – it doesn’t always play nicely!
The main point for me personally is not let yourself get stressed. As long as it’s not impacting your quality of life or your well-being, don’t worry if your sleep doesn’t seem to follow a ‘perfect’ pattern.
This worked for me, and I hope it helps you too!
When to seek medical advice
Despite my focus on acceptance in this article, if you’re worried that waking up regularly and for long periods of time is impacting on your life and well-being, please talk to your doctor about it. They might decide to check for an underlying sleep disorder or medical condition.
If they think that you have a form of insomnia that needs treating, they might prescribe medication. But it may be that they discuss good sleep habits with you or suggest specialist therapy to help with your sleep.
Are you awake in the night more often that you would like to be? What do you do to cope with it? Please share your thoughts in the comment below.