Waking up in the Middle of the Night – How to Stop It

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Sleep issues can leave many of us feeling helpless and at a loss for a quick fix. Unfortunately, waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to go back to sleep isn’t uncommon, but that doesn’t mean the occurrence is necessarily healthy or expected.

Below we discuss a variety of reasons you may wake up in the middle of the night and outline a few small steps to help you wake up feeling refreshed.

Reasons Why We Wake up at Night

Night Terrors

Recent research has indicated that night terrors may relate to your genetics. Also called “sleep terrors,” these episodes are characterized by extreme fright, panic, and a temporary incapacity to regain full consciousness. In addition, stress, fatigue, and emotional distress are believed to trigger episodes at night.

Night terrors are more common in children, but they appear in adults as well. Ensuring you and your kids get enough sleep and managing stress should help.[1]

Illustration of a Young Man Having a Nightmare

Sleep Apnea

Many Americans struggle with sleep apnea, which is characterized by the body ceasing to breathe at regular intervals throughout the night. Luckily, our bodies are incredibly sensitive and typically awaken to resume breathing; however, this still causes interrupted sleep.[2]

Many times, the awakening is so brief that we won’t remember it, but if you sleep with a partner, they may point out that you stop breathing at intervals during the night. There are devices called CPAP machines that help regulate your breathing. You may also want to switch sleeping positions and lie on your side or get a wedge pillow to help keep you propped up if you’re a back sleeper.

Read More: Signs of Sleep Apnea

Mental Health Issues: Anxiety, Depression, & Insomnia

People suffering from anxiety may experience regular panic attacks or have trouble relaxing. Sticking with a calming nighttime daily ritual could help rewire the body and mind, training it to respond to cues, indicating that it’s time to relax and go to sleep.

Depression is often a precursor to sleep issues, so if you’re struggling with sleep, your mental health may be the root cause.[3] Major Depressive Disorder affects over 16 million American adults in any given year.

High-pressure jobs, children, family, and even traffic can trigger high levels of stress. Anxiety built up over a day, weeks, or months can make relaxing feel impossible when we finally crawl into bed. Prolonged anxiety can trigger insomnia and profoundly affect our sleep.

Find Out More: How Does Anxiety Affect Your Sleep?

Illustration of Tom Coming Home from Work and His Family Waiting for Him

If you frequently imagine how you’re going to quit the next time your boss drops more work on your desk on a Friday afternoon — we understand. However, it might be beneficial to channel that energy into something more mentally calming instead, like yoga or meditation. You could even escape with a nice bubble bath or novel.

View Our Guide: How to Cope With Stress and Sleep

Environmental Factors

A room that is too hot or too cold is a likely culprit in your stolen rest. The ideal temperature of your bedroom should be between 60 and 67 degrees, which may seem cold, but being too warm can impair our ability to sleep as well.[4]

When our bodies prepare for sleep, our internal temperature drops. To stay asleep, humans have to maintain a temperature that’s about a degree below the standard 98.6 degrees. When your bedroom thermostat is set too high or low, it causes our body to work harder to maintain that equilibrium, which can wake us up as a result.

Get More Info: Benefits of Sleeping in a Cold Room

Ways to Get Back to Sleep

Deep Breathing

There are a variety of deep breathing techniques to help with stress, anxiety, and sleep. Studies have shown that deep breathing techniques in conjunction with sleep hygiene may be highly effective in initiating sleep and falling back to sleep when awoken in the middle of the night.[5]

Meditation

Meditating is a perfect way to clear the mind and help you sleep. You can access free and low-cost guided meditations through YouTube or an app, like Headspace. Many platforms offer fantastic guided sessions that facilitate relaxation, focus, deep breathing, and sleepiness— perfect before bed.

Learn More: How to Meditate Before Sleep

Illustration of a Woman Meditating Before Going to Bed

Progressive Muscle Relaxation

This technique is often done at the end of a yoga class, and it can work wonders for sleep, as it’s known for its relaxation effects. You can practice this by tensing (gently, not to the point of pain or cramping) and then relaxing each muscle in your body, starting with your feet and slowly moving up your entire body.[6]

How Do I Stay Asleep?

Establish a Bedtime Routine

To maximize the time you stay asleep, creating a routine can be extremely beneficial. Maintaining a regular schedule can help signal to your body that it’s time for bed and should work to relax you enough to drift off easily.

You could incorporate simple things like reading for 10 minutes, a warm shower or bath, or a cup of herbal tea. Even the act of brushing your teeth could be a powerful signal that can train your mind to cease internal chatter and prepare for sleep. You could even finish the night with some stretching before bed.

Want to learn more? Visit our guide to relaxing bedtime rituals.

Illustration of a Man Sleeping Tight after a Cup of Tea

Make Your Bedroom Conducive to Sleep

We mentioned earlier that your bedroom should resemble a cave. Aim for pitch darkness, a colder temperature, and complete silence. Small slivers of light may seem harmless, but even a bit of light can be disruptive and mess with our circadian rhythm. Blackout curtains can be excellent for creating a dark haven.

If you sleep with the TV on, be sure it’s switched off. Charge your phone in another room, and avoid nightlights.

Avoid Caffeine

Caffeine stays in your system long after your last cup. The exact number of hours varies, but research shows caffeine in healthy individuals may take up to nine and a half hours to eliminate from the body.[7]

Some individuals may take even longer depending on their body. If your goal is to be asleep by 10 pm, be sure you’re not drinking a 4 pm coffee to get through your afternoon slump.

Get More Info: Caffeine and Sleep

Illustration of Drinks that Contain Caffeine

Frequently Asked Questions

What is middle insomnia?

Unlike insomnia, which is the inability to fall asleep, middle insomnia means it’s difficult for you to sleep during the middle of the night. Waking up between 1 am and 4 am and not falling back asleep is the most common symptom of middle insomnia. However, times vary depending on the individual.[8]

Can I take melatonin at 3 a.m.?

Melatonin is great for inducing sleep, and it’s a naturally occurring hormone in our bodies that can help you fall asleep when you’re jet lagged or feeling particularly anxious before bed.

You can take melatonin late at night or early in the morning, however, the dosage may leave you groggy when you wake up in the morning. We recommend speaking with your doctor first, and starting with a small 1 or 3 mg dose. Melatonin can also be bought over-the-counter in 5 and 10 mg doses, but it’s wise to start small.

Sources and References:

Content Writer | + posts

Rachael is a content writer for Sleep Advisor who loves combining her enthusiasm for writing and wellness. She’s had a passion for writing since she was a kid when she wrote awful poetry. She’s honed her craft quite a bit since then and considers herself a lucky duck to get paid to do what she loves.

Embracing the remote work life, she occasionally takes her work on the road and lives out her travel writer pipe dream.

In her free time, she attempts to meditate regularly, rides her bike to Trader Joe’s, and enjoys trying every type of food that she can get her hands on.

Sleep Therapist | + posts

Emma Ashford is a Sleep Therapist, Founder of Sleep Seekers and speaks internationally on sleep education and insomnia. She is one of the UK’s leading Sleep Experts and Insomnia Therapists. Emma is a highly-experienced psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, and sleep disorder coach; she has worked with hundreds of patients, applying her unique approach to help clients overcome insomnia.

Emma’s work has been featured in The Guardian and Natural Health Magazine, and she has been featured on the BBC's Look North, advising on sleep during the Covid19 pandemic.

Sleep Psychologist | + posts

Katherine has over 13 years of clinical experience working in the public and private sector and is dedicated to improving sleep health.

Katherine has a post-graduate diploma in cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy and a bachelor's degree in psychology. She spends her workweek at Somnus Therapy with one goal in mind, to help people sleep better using natural and holistic approaches.

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