It’s 2 a.m. You don’t have to be up until 6:30 a.m. That’s four long hours away plus 30 minutes more. If this goes on for the whole time, what, are you supposed to do with yourself until then?
You’re irritated! You may or may not be able to get some sleep later in the day. You know you’re going to be tired later. This is the time you’ve set aside for sleep, and it needs to happen now.
Pessimistically, you consider you might fall asleep at 6:01 a.m. You’ll get 29 minutes of good sleep and then have to get up for work. You’ll feel terrible. Guaranteed.
This isn’t good!
What am I going to do?
If you have a partner in bed, you don’t want to wake them up. They’ll be grouchy, and besides, they need their sleep too. You don’t want your trouble sleeping affecting their health. That wouldn’t be right.
Negative thoughts and random ones too
You could go to the kitchen and eat. A full stomach can help you feel calm and relaxed. That, unfortunately, would ruin your diet and might leave you with a bad case of acid reflux when you tried to lie down again. If you do eat, eat something light.
You have all kinds of random thoughts.
You think about how you could go to an emergency department and see what they could do about your inability to sleep. Anyone who has worked at an emergency department at night can tell you people do this. You don’t, however, because you consider how they probably wouldn’t do anything and then present you with a big bill to boot. Your primary care doctor at a regularly scheduled appointment is the best place to talk about your sleep difficulties.
You may consider going to an all-night diner and seeing what’s going on there. Or, you think about the convenience store you pass on the way home. There are people awake there.
The convenience store or the diner wouldn’t leave you with as extreme of a bill at the emergency department, but that would signify completely giving up on the prospect of sleeping tonight.
You don’t want to turn on the television either. There are all kinds of commercials on there to convince you that you need some gadget.
The same goes for a shopping site.
It can feel hopeless.
And insomnia is much more common today than it was in the past.
You don’t want to take some medication to help you go back to sleep. Alcohol isn’t the answer either, especially if you have to be somewhere like work the next morning where they wouldn’t take too kindly to you showing up even a little intoxicated.
The same goes for any other drugs.
You could get on your computer and browse. You’ve done that all day. What’s a few more hours of that?
Yet there’s a better option other than aimlessly browsing on the Internet. One thing you can do is simply accept you’re supposed to be up at this time.
Why are you up in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep?
There’s probably a different root cause for everyone who finds themselves doing this.
You could be worried about something. Stress often causes or contributes to insomnia.
It could be because your room is uncomfortable. Maybe you could use an improved sleep environment.
There’s a lot that contributes to the sleep environment. Maybe it’s your sleepwear. Or your bed. Or your sheets. Or the temperature in your room. Perhaps your mattress.
Your sleeping schedule could be out of whack, perhaps you’re switching from being up all night and all day.
Having a consistent bedtime tends to improve sleep immensely.
Maybe you’ve slept enough earlier in the day.
There are a lot of possible reasons.
Maybe there’s more than one. Make a mental list but don’t stress about it even though you’re well aware sleep contributes immensely to overall health. Dedicate yourself to calm, purposeful, effective action when you’re having trouble sleeping.
One thing you can do about it is decide what you will do with the time.
You can choose to see it as a gift.
Embrace the moment
What if you were able to see your insomnia as a gift when you can’t fall back asleep in the middle of the night, to simply embrace it for the gift of relaxation?
Combine positive thoughts with breathing exercises. Soft and slow, breathe in through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Breathing exercises by themselves can help derail your churning thoughts and lead you back to Slumberland. You could try counting sheep.
If you stay in bed, it might mean using the time for mindfulness meditation, a mental body scan, or prayer. Remember prayer can be a two-way street. Mentally talk to God and listen for a reply. Simply be present in the moment.
There are a number of relaxation techniques. Right now, when you can’t sleep, is a great time to employ them. If the conditions are right, you might relax back to sleep.
It would mean getting up out of bed, doing something, and not worrying about anything.
Accept that this time, in the middle of the night, this very night, is meant for you. For your dreams. For your life. You’re less likely to be interrupted.
You might be awake because you are meant to be awake. Resolve to something beautiful with it.
Finding the perfect middle-of-the-night activity when you can’t sleep
The perfect middle-of-the-night activity will be quiet and somewhat boring. It also won’t involve a computer screen that doesn’t have blue-light blocking on it. Exposure to blue light can affect your ability to fall back asleep.
The perfect middle-of-the-night activity is the thing you’ve put off because though you know you should, you’re not excited about doing it.
It’s best to give all of these ideas a try for at least 15 minutes to see how you feel. If you’re not absolutely tired after 15 minutes, give it another 15 minutes. Some of them, like creating a budget, can take longer than 15 minutes, but 15 minutes can give you a good start, making it easier to take up again later.
Things you can do in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep
- Create a budget with a pencil and paper. It’s important to start with a list of goals and dreams. Where do you want to be in five years? In twenty?
- Write a letter with a pen and paper. Don’t know who you’d write to? Write a letter to your younger self telling him or her how you feel about how things have turned out so far. Write an actual physical letter to someone who’d like getting a letter like that or has never gotten one before.
- Try some gentle stretching exercises or yoga. Flexibility is a component of physical fitness. Stretching works the tension out of your muscles while not getting your pulse rate up too high.
- Pray or meditate. If you pray, start by praying for yourself and then your friends and family. If you feel ready, mentally work on the heavy-duty issues we all face, like forgiving those who have slighted us and our character flaws. Pray for those who really could use some prayers. Spiritual reading, like the Bible or another work of wisdom, is another option.
- Write a poem.
- Pursue your hobby if you have one, and the stuff is available.
- Draw or sketch something.
- Read a book or magazine. Maybe there’s an old one around your place if you’re not reading one now.
- Make a list of healthy meals you could eat at home. Then make a grocery shopping list.
- Make what they call a bucket list of things you’d like to do before you die. Make far-reaching plans. Memento mori.
- Clean, especially if it’s something you don’t particularly enjoy doing, and if it won’t wake up others.
If you’re faced with an overwhelming number of tasks, putting them down on paper can help you prioritize. What are the most important things you have to get done? What will give your life the most impact? Some of them, like dealing with your bills, can stir up a lot of negative feelings.
There’s power in accepting your insomnia
When you do, it doesn’t matter as much. You’ve acknowledged you’re probably not going back to sleep unless you get really tired. Accepting the moment, the gift, of being awake at night when you’re free to focus on something important is a way of improving your life. Ideally, you shouldn’t avoid anything. Money plays a big role in achieving our dreams. Getting a handle on yours, and making a plan for your spending and earning is part of reaching your dreams.
Introspection has a bad name for some people. That’s because it can be an endless rathole of anxiety that keeps you up all night long. It can, however, inform purposeful action, which can help you live a better life in the long run. The key is being able to channel your energy into something productive.
You can try planning for these periods when you’re not able to sleep at night. That’s especially a good idea if you’re a night-shift worker who’s switching back to being awake for a string of days. Be ready with a paper book you’d like to read or a project you’ve always wanted to complete. If you prepare, you can try middle-of-the-night activities like quilting, crocheting, and knitting while you listen to a podcast. Ideas like that didn’t make the list above because you can’t start sewing without preparing for it during the day.
You can go through a period of these middle-of-the-night awakenings. It doesn’t mean it will be a permanent part of your life if you don’t get on some sleep medication or start taking some supplements. Melatonin can help you stay asleep if you take it at the beginning of the night until you get your circadian rhythm in line. You can often make adjustments to improve your sleep quality, like having a consistent sleep schedule. While you don’t necessarily need to see a doctor about insomnia, he or she can often help you sort your sleep difficulties out.
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For further reading:
Even with a war going on, Americans slept better in 1968
I fought with the military method and won.
James Cobb, RN, MSN, is an emergency department nurse and the founder of the Dream Recovery System. His goal is to provide his readers with simple, actionable ways to improve their health and maximize their quality of life.
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