Waking up in the middle of the night: how to avoid feeling frustrated

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

Waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to go to back to sleep is one of the most frustrating things. You wake up a little bit, then your mind switches on and you are fully awake. You may lie awake for a while, then eventually get bored and get up.... You don’t feel tired, so maybe you’re not tired. However, when the morning comes, you are craving just a few more hours of sleep but it’s too late....

This happens to a lot of people but that doesn't make it feel any better! Here are some simple tips for how to approach this problem for yourself.

What is waking you up in the night?

Firstly, it’s actually very normal to wake up at the end of a sleep cycle. A sleep cycle lasts around 90 minutes so you might be waking up three, four and a half or six hours after going to sleep. Is this the case for you?

Every sleep cycle ends with a period of light, REM sleep, when it is relatively easy to wake up. Towards the end of the night we spend a greater proportion of the sleep cycle in a light sleep and REM sleep, which is why it’s more likely to wake up towards the end of the night.

Waking up in the night isn’t necessarily a problem. If you wake up for less than three minutes, you won’t even be aware of it and you can go straight back to sleep. This clever biological mechanism of micro-wakening kept humans safe… and smart.

The three-minute micro-wakening allowed us to scan the horizon for predators to check if we could allow ourselves the final cycles of REM sleep, which are essential for the development of the social and emotional centres of our brain.

Other reasons for unnecessarily waking up in the middle of the night include:

  • being too hot or cold

  • being dehydrated

  • needing to go to the loo

  • physical discomfort (back pain, neck pain)

  • digestive problems

  • noise

Check whether any of these might be waking you up and if you can address the issue with some simple changes.

How to get back to sleep at 5am?

How do you get back to sleep as quickly as possible? You can start by asking yourself some simple questions. When you wake up in the middle of the night…

  • How do you feel?

  • What do you think?

  • What do you do?

A lot of people tell me that they feel frustrated, hopeless, resigned to not sleeping and having a terrible day. They think about work or worrying things. Or they just can’t stop thinking, about everything and anything!

They think that they won’t be able to sleep and that they will be exhausted the next day because of it. Some people give up on waiting for sleep to arrive, get out of bed or (sound the scary music) get out their phone to pass the time.

It’s essential at this moment to stay positive and to not give up on going to sleep. It’s also very important that you give yourself enough of a chance to go back to sleep before you start activities that will promote wakefulness, such as screens or even reading a book with a dim light.

You can also explore these three conditions for good sleep as a kind of checklist, to find out what else might be stopping you from getting back to sleep quickly.

A calm mind

If you have a mental or emotional overload during the day that you haven’t processed before going to bed, it’s likely that the worries will come knocking at your door in the early hours of the morning.

So try giving yourself more time and space to address your concerns in the evening before you go to bed, making a mental note to yourself that the night is not a time to deal with your concerns and that you’ll be better able to deal with it in the morning if you have a good night’s sleep.

You can also apply strong mental discipline when you wake up. Tell yourself in a firm but compassionate inner voice, that this is no time to deal with your concerns and you will go back to sleep and deal with it in the morning.

The moment you give up on the idea of going back to sleep, you give up going back to sleep. It might sound too easy to be true, but I encourage you to give it a try!

A relaxed body

You might start tossing and turning and feel physical tension building up from the frustration of being awake. In this case, I recommend a body scan and breathing exercises. You can do this on your own, or with the help of a yoga nidra for sleep audio. By rotating awareness around the body, you will relax your body and feel less attached to the physical sensations.

If you have physical pain, you can ask yourself – or your GP - what practical ways you can minimise discomfort so that you can get some sleep. Pain interrupts your sleep, but a lack of sleep increases the sensitivity of your pain receptors (making the pain stronger) so do whatever you can to get the sleep you need, which will in turn help you manage the pain.

Environment that is conducive to sleep

Ensure that your bedroom is as comfortable and calm as possible. Just a few minutes of exposure to sunlight, even with your eyes close, can signal to your body that it’s time to start your day. If necessary, use earplugs and an eye mask to convince your body that it is time to go back to sleep.

Should I get out of bed when I wake up in the night?

It’s important that you associate your bed with sleeping rather than being frustrated about not sleeping. So, if you wake up, don’t stay in your bed for more than 20 or 30 minutes. Don’t be afraid to get up, do something relaxing and calm, before going back to bed and trying to sleep again. The important thing is to relax and not get too stressed.

I also recommend keeping a regular wake up time and not trying to compensate for night-time awakenings by staying in bed later and later. Your body needs routine and your sleep will adjust to the timings that you set for yourself, if the conditions are favourable.

Has this given you a better idea of what might be waking you up in the night? What are you going to try to get back to sleep quicker? What works well for you when you wake up in the middle of the night?

Feel free to leave your comments below and email me if you have any questions: dotzacharias@gmail.com.

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