Sleep Better: How to Fall Back Asleep When You Wake Up Too Early
“I often wake up far too early, at 4 or 5 in the morning, especially when I have a big, important day ahead. I can’t get back to sleep and find myself focusing on what I need to do later, which leads to anxiety — everything is magnified. Then I worry that I haven’t had enough sleep, which makes everything worse. It’s a vicious circle. How can I stop all the mind chatter and the tossing and turning and drift off again?” —Janine Hopkins, professional life coach, La Jolla, California
A: This is a common problem, Janine. Lying awake in bed and mulling over your to-do list can be distressing. Personally, when I wake up too early, I breathe deeply and slowly and take those pre-dawn moments to relax and think about what I am grateful for. As I’m sure you know as a coach, if you are focusing on gratitude, those positive emotions will override the anxious feelings. Try closing your eyes and placing your attention on joyful, calming thoughts, whether that’s family, friends, pets, nature, or a favorite vacation spot.
While there isn’t one right answer for everyone, there is considerable research on this topic. It is important to experiment and find what works best for each of us. According to some experts, if you are wide awake for more than 30 minutes, it’s helpful to get up and go to another room for a short period of time. “It seems like the opposite of what we think we should be doing,” says Katherine Duggan, Ph.D., assistant professor of social and health psychology at North Dakota State University, who specializes in sleep and health. “If we’re tired, we should be in bed trying to sleep, right? But research shows that staying in bed while you’re awake — especially while feeling anxious — can create a negative cycle so we associate our beds with anxiety rather than relaxation. If you’ve been awake for a long time, it may be best to get out of bed and get the day going.”
It is very important if you’re restless in the early hours to resist the temptation to look at your clock or phone. “Everybody wakes up a handful of times during the night. That is not a problem; it’s part of normal human physiology,” says Nathaniel Watson, M.D., professor of neurology and co-director of the University of Washington’s Medicine Sleep Center. “The only problem is when you can’t fall back to sleep. Usually, that’s because you’ll look at the clock or your phone, which reminds you about what you have to do, so you’re not in a sleep mindset anymore. It doesn’t matter what time it is,” he explains. And if you are sleeping with a phone in your bedroom, tuck it away so it’s out of sight; then you won’t be tempted to sneak a look in the middle of the night!
Another tip: Keep a notebook close to your bed and jot down your thoughts before you go to sleep; a nighttime journal can be really helpful. “Write down everything you need to do the next day or the things you’re worried about,” says Dr. Watson. “Put pen to paper with all your concerns. When you close the book, everything’s organized and ready to be dealt with the following day, so you can go back to sleep with a mind that’s free to relax.”
Finally, if you have a spiritual practice as I do, you can simply pray. Take this time to be thankful or seek peace. Try meditating, or just slowing down your breath. Anxiety is all about projection and anticipation that isn’t real. I encourage you to work on staying present, without reflecting on the past or projecting onto the future. Just be where you are now — in bed, on the brink of sleep again — and let yourself drift off.
And if you’re consistently waking up in the middle of the night, especially if you snore heavily or wake up due to pain, it may be time to replace your mattress, talk to your doctor, or a sleep medicine specialist.
Sleep well, dream big.