Waking At NightDr. Matthew Edlund, MD, MOH
It’s the middle of the night and you can’t sleep...what do you do?
Posted April 14, 2011
Perhaps it’s the effect of a crashed economy, soaring gas prices, upheaval in the Middle East, blown up nuclear reactor buildings or the Charles Sheen saga, but people are waking up a lot these days—in the middle of the night. Frequently they can’t fall back to sleep.
There are many other reasons why people wake up early. Depression is a very common cause of early or middle insomnia. Psychophysiologic insomnia afflicts those whose worries about sleep wake them frequently throughout the night. Sleep apnea frequently arouses people, becoming a surprisingly common cause of insomnia especially in women. Leg kicks, often invisible to those who have them, puzzlingly wake many.
So you don’t have any of these common problems. Nor are medications or pain interfering with your sleep. What can you do to get back to sleep?
Here are a few suggestions:
1. Don’t look at the clock. Don’t even allow yourself to be able to look at the clock.
Clockwatching is often both a major precipitant and exacerbating influence for sleeplessness. There are many rhythms in the human body, including those of 60, 90, and 120 minutes. They are very easy to entrain whenever you look at the clock.
Solution—set some kind of timed alarm and make sure you cannot read clock faces at night. I put a book in front of my clock radio.
2. Read a book you should have read in high school but didn’t. Okay, it might have been assigned in university, or just a tome you believe will be sleep inducing. Several literary categories come to mind:
- Poetry. With its rhythm and dense imagery, poetry is often helpful to aid sleep. Works of previous centuries may prove highly effective for middle of the night wakers. I’ll read John Donne, Andrew Marvell or Goethe if wakened in the middle of the night, but Tennyson, Longfellow, and particularly Alexander Pope and John Dryden possess potent soporific powers for our present age.
- History. This is your chance to check out all the kings of Serbia who did or did not die a natural death (only one made it). Reading about faraway events often puts present ones into perspective.
- Historical fiction. Even if some recent political memoirs rightfully belong in this category, reading about characters you can identify with can be both pleasant and sleep inducing.
- Art History. Beautiful pictures and worshipful delectations on brushwork and composition, combined with biographical facts on long dead artists, can both inspire visually calming dreams and help induce sleep.
- Memoirs. Harry Truman’s lie on my night table. Tastes will differ, but many different kinds of memoirs may aid sleep in the middle of the night.
- Plays. Ben Jonson and William Congreve can provoke merriment and great pleasure, but the rhythm of their witty dialogue can aid the fitful sleeper.
- Travel books. Looking for pleasant dream material? Start with places you’ve never been—and may never imagine trying to visit. Eric Hansen’s walk across Borneo is the sort of experience most of us would gladly miss, yet it can be charming and calming reading in the middle of the night.
3. Music soothes more than Shakespearan savage beasts. Some fall asleep to New Age rhythms, others to early Mozart serenades or Telemann concerti. Moreover lullabies exist in most languages and a great deal of pop music of the past 50 years can aid some people towards slumber.
4. Rest relaxation techniques. Many are described in The Power of Rest, but simple deep breathing while lying on your bed can help:
Breathe in to the count of 4, out to the count of 8. Visualize the most beautiful natural scenery you know—and imagining walking or flying through it.
5. Yoga. Lots of yoga positions can induce sleep—many are designed to do just that—corpse pose is just one. For those without yoga training, lying flat and sensing the pull of gravity onto your mattress can help you take “the gravity well” down to sleep.
The times indeed are difficult. Many are without work or worried about their jobs, or just worried about what’s going on in the world.
Yet to tackle those problems one needs to sleep. Rest is regeneration. The body needs to rebuild to stay alive.
Nor should people feel terrible that they’re waking in the middle of the night. It’s actually normal. Before the American sleep “standard” became “lie down and die” people routinely woke in the middle of the night and performed many acts—thought about their dreams, did housework, dusted for a while—and easily got back to sleep.
Now that we possess no “free time to waste” there’s not a minute of sleep we don’t seem to need. Yet waking in the middle of the night is normal, and most “perfect sleepers” will still wake a dozen or two dozen times a night, though often so briefly they will not recollect their waking (it generally takes several minutes being awake to remember you were awake. )
The important thing is to get back to sleep. To dream. To renew. To regenerate.
No matter how difficult the circumstances, simple techniques will work for most of us—even in difficult times.
Dr. Matthew Edlund, M.D., M.O.H., is an internationally recognized expert on rest, sleep, and body clocks. His books include The Body Clock Advantage, Designed to Last, and Psychological Time and Mental Illness. His new book, The Power of Rest, shows that rest is a skill that rebuilds, renews, and rewires mind and body, and can increase productivity, health, and pleasure. For more information, visit his website, TheRestDoctor.com. You can also subscribe to his new Fitcast via the iTunes Store.