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How to Calm Your Restless Nights

Strategies to help insomnia and sleep problems.

Source: Stock-Asso/Shutterstock

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 turn to pills or other sleep aids, such as machines that produce soothing sounds. Sleep-inducing drugs have side effects, such as dependency and drug “hangovers," but what else can you do? Actually, there are cognitive strategies that can 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, it is important to deal with the anxiety that comes from worrying about whether you got “enough” sleep. An obsession with counting hours can, in and of itself, cause anxiety and sleeplessness. We are taught that eight hours of uninterrupted sleep is required for good health, and we believe that this is the norm. However, research suggests both of these assumptions may be wrong: People vary in how much sleep they need. Some require six or fewer hours of sleep, some eight or more. Importantly, it is the uninterrupted part that has more recently been called into question. Historians have discovered that our ancestors, as recently as a few centuries ago, had what is called segmented sleep: They would sleep for three-to-four hours, get up for a couple of hours of activity, and then go back to their “second sleep” of another three or four hours. What did they do during the waking period? They read, had sex, and even socialized with their neighbors.

Sleep researchers who have studied participants in controlled, dark environments found that without clocks or light, most people slept in just such a segmented sleep pattern. So waking up for a while in the middle of the night may be normal.

The point is that uninterrupted sleep may not be the norm, and so we shouldn’t obsess or worry if we wake up for a while during the night. Also, if you do wake up, you can use that time to relax or do something constructive or interesting, and then 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 using it to worry about your lack of sleep and how it might affect you the next day, try to see it as beneficial. Here’s how:

1. If you wake up worrying about your job, or the things you have to do, or even your health, make a mental to-do list (or get up and write one out).

Write down the tasks that you must do at work, the necessary errands you’ve been worrying about, or the medical appointments you need to schedule. You will likely find that your list isn’t as long as you thought it would be, and knowing that it’s all manageable may help get you back to 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 your wakefulness to reflect on the good things in your life: Reminisce about old times, bask in your accomplishments, be thankful for good friends and good times—these are thoughts that will trigger positive emotions, rather than the negative emotions of worrying about lack of sleep. The positive thoughts, coupled with the confidence of knowing that this may be just a “segment” of wakefulness, may send you into a wonderful and restful "second sleep."

4. Just get up and do something or start your day.

Sleep experts say that it’s a mistake to think you can “make up” lost sleep with 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. And try to get a more regular night's sleep the next night. [Note: Sleep experts also suggest sticking to routine bedtime and waking times and to vary them as little as possible.]

What I’m suggesting is that for most people, sleeplessness and insomnia are 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.

More on segmented sleep here.

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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