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
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.
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.
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. 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?
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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:
-  “Sleep Terrors”, Stanford Health Care (SHC) – Stanford Medical Center, September 12, 2017
-  “Sleep Apnea”, National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
-  David Nutt, et al., “Sleep Disorders as Core Symptoms of Depression”, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, Les Laboratoires Servier, 2008
-  “What Is the Ideal Sleeping Temperature for My Bedroom?”, Nature and Science of Sleep, Cleveland Clinic, October 9, 2020
-  Ravinder Jerath, et al., “Self-Regulation of Breathing as an Adjunctive Treatment of Insomnia”, Frontiers in Psychiatry, Frontiers Media S.A., January 29, 2019
-  “Stress Management: Doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation”, Michigan Medicine
-  “Pharmacology of Caffeine”, Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Military Nutrition Research, January 1, 1970
-  “Frequent Waking”, Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, August 23, 2019