Many of us (perhaps all of us) have had trouble sleeping. Perhaps it’s only for a few nights, or at certain stressful times, or maybe it’s a chronic problem. Many people turn to pills or other sleep aids (such as machines that produce soothing sounds). Obviously, sleep-inducing drugs have side effects, such as dependency and drug “hangovers.” But what else can you do?
There are cognitive strategies that can be used to help calm your restless nights. Try some of these before you turn to a sleeping pill, or decide to simply stay up all night and suffer the next day.
First and foremost, it is important to deal with the anxiety that comes from worrying about whether you got “enough” sleep. Obsession with counting hours can, in and of itself, cause anxiety and sleeplessness. We are taught that 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep is required for good health. We believe that this is the norm. However, research suggests that both of these assumptions may be wrong. People vary regarding how much sleep they need. Some require 6 or less hours of sleep, some 8 or more. Importantly, it is the “uninterrupted” part that has more recently been called into question. Historians have discovered that our ancestors a few centuries ago used to have what is called “segmented sleep.” They would sleep for 3-4 hours, get up for a couple of hours of activity, and then go back to their “second sleep” of 3-4 hours. What did they do during the waking period? They read, had sex, and even socialized with the neighbors!
Sleep researchers who studied participants in controlled, dark environments found that without clocks or light, most slept in just such a segmented sleep pattern. So, waking up in the middle of the night for a while may be normal. What’s the point? There are two: first, uninterrupted sleep may not be the norm, so we shouldn’t obsess or worry if we wake up for a while during the night; second, if you do wake up, you can use that time to relax, or do something constructive/interesting (for example, I’m blogging, but will likely go back to sleep), and return to bed.
Here is another thought: perhaps we can use a period of wakefulness to our advantage, and help overcome chronic insomnia. This involves cognitive reframing. If segmented sleep is normal, then we should expect to have periods of wakefulness, but it’s what we do with our awake time that is important. Instead of worrying about your lack of sleep and how it might affect you the next day, try to see it as beneficial. Here’s what you can do:
1. If you wake up worrying about your job, or the things you have to do, or even your health (“am I getting sick?”), make a mental to-do list (or get up and write out your to-do list). Write down the tasks that you must do at work, or the necessary errands you’ve been worrying about (or scheduling that doctor visit). You will likely find that your list isn’t as long as you thought it would be. Just knowing that it’s all manageable may help put you back to “second sleep.”
2. Use your wakefulness to make new plans or to inspire you (that’s how I came up with the topic for this post!). Again, you can make a mental (or a physical) to-do list of your new endeavor. Reward yourself by saying, “I’ll get started on this in the morning, but a short second sleep will be nice…”
3. Count your blessings. Use the wakefulness to reflect on the good things in your life. You can reminisce about old times, bask in your accomplishments, be thankful for good friends and good times – thoughts that will trigger positive emotions, rather than the negative emotions of worrying about lack of sleep. Knowing that this may be just a “segment” of wakefulness, coupled with the positive emotions, may send you into a wonderful and restful second sleep.
4. Just get up and do something or start your day. I know that sleep experts say that it’s a mistake to think you can “make up” lost sleep by a longer period of sleep the next night, but it’s a trade-off. I’d rather get up and get going rather than generating anxiety and worry over lack of sleep. Try to get a more regular night's sleep the next night. [Note: sleep experts suggest sticking to a routine bedtime and waking time and to vary that as little as possible.]
What I’m suggesting is that for most people, sleeplessness and insomnia is often “all in your head” (but, of course, you knew that already). The key now is how you think about it. Stay positive, hopeful, and productive with those mid-night waking periods, as our ancestors did.
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Ekirch, A. Roger (2005). At Day's Close: Night In Times Past. W.W. Norton
Wehr, T.A. (1992). "In short photoperiods, human sleep is biphasic". Journal of Sleep
Winter, C. (2017). The Sleep Solution: Why Your Sleep is Broken and How to Fix It. New York: Penguin