Is there anything more BONKERS-inducing than waking up in the middle of the night every night for months on end??!
You know how it goes…
Bedtime comes, drowsiness kicks in, and you fall asleep no problem. Then, 3am rolls around and you’re wide awake staring at the clock wondering if there's a snowball's chance in hell that you'll fall asleep again before your 7am alarm starts blaring.
If this is your current situation, take heart because you can coax your brain to fall back to sleep in the middle of the night no matter how long you’ve had insomnia.
In this blog, I expose one of the MAJOR myths about sleep. (This is big one, y'all 😮 ) Then, I'll share an easy, 3-step process that will help you fall back to sleep in the middle of night (once and for all).
Let's start with that myth...
It's a myth that some humans sleep through the whole night! Research suggests that for hundreds of thousands of years, we actually slept in TWO shifts. Segmented sleep is actually a very biologically NORMAL process - it's how we did it for most of our evolution.
"For most of our evolution we slept a certain way," says sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs. "Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology."
In between sleeps, fires were stoked and stoves replenished. People took turns watching over the clan or tribe. Researchers say that the watch time was often used for reflection and meditation (and I'd guess 'other' things).
You can read more about this fascinating discovery here.
Remember, the fundamental act of waking up in the middle of the night is a completely NORMAL behavior.
You're doing absolutely nothing wrong!
Sleep cycles generally last about 90 minutes before the brain takes you out of sleep. However, you may wake up more frequently and stay awake longer.
One of the biggest things affecting how well we sleep through the night is what we believe about waking up during the night. The stories we tell ourselves about it.
These beliefs may sound something like…
“I always wake up, there’s something medically wrong with me.”
“My partner sleeps through the WHOLE night no problem, why can’t I?”
"I'm just not a good sleeper."
“Once I wake up, that’s it, I’m UP!”
“I’ve tried everything, and nothing works for me.”
"Everyone in my family wakes up in the middle of the night."
Remember, everyone, (even that person that sleeps like the dead) wakes up periodically during the night, they just fall back to sleep so quickly that they don’t even remember it the next day.
You can fall back to sleep, too, with this easy 3-step process that starts with reframing what you believe about the situation.
The first step towards sleeping more soundly through the night is to reframe the situation and look at what you believe about the event.
The goal here is to let go of the frustration around waking up.
You can change what you believe about the situation by introducing a different story about it. This might look something like…
“My super amazing brain is always working hard to keep me safe.” (In our modern life, we no longer need to check for safety in the middle of the night, but your brain is still looking out for you!)
“I appreciate how in-tune I am with my ancestors who also woke up in the middle of the night and even slept in shifts!”
Your brain is actually doing what it thinks is best for your survival!
The brain looks for assurances that the environment is safe to go back to sleep. Sending messages of frustration tells the brain that there’s a problem and puts it on high alert! (Remember, there really is no problem because it's completely normal to wake up periodically throughout the night.)
When the brain is in problem-solving mode, it creates chemicals in the body (like adrenaline and cortisol) that aren’t conducive to sleep and can also lead to hyperarousal.
So, for step one, you want to create a helpful narrative during the day about what you believe about waking up at night.
This will look a bit different for everyone. My personal go-to is:
"I love my amazing brain... so in-tune and always on the look out for me."
Get SUPER CLEAR on this new story. If you apply it consistently during the day, it will become automatic in the middle of the night when you're groggy. (Definitely much harder to consciously change a story while sleepy.)
So, remind yourself of this new belief often throughout the day!
Then, it’s just a matter of managing your thoughts...
If you wake up in the middle of the night, the number one thing we want to do is let go of any frustration around the event. It’s no big deal, right? Everyone wakes up in the middle of the night!
Because you’ve already shifted your perception and reframed the belief around the occurrence, it will be much easier to manage any incoming thoughts.
Here's How to Do It
When those automatic thoughts come rolling in it’s important to know that they are just thoughts! You don't need to push them away or deny them or pretend they don't exist. You can, however, consciously redirect them, whatever they are.
The trick is to just notice them. Noticing your thoughts is the first step towards reframing them.
You’ve already worked on changing your perception of waking up in the middle of the night. (That alone will change the thoughts that come during the night!)
Now, if you wake up and your mind starts filling up with unhelpful thoughts (ruminating, survival thoughts, frustration, etc.), just notice them.
Often, we don't want to feel helpless in a situation so when our brain turns on in the middle of the night, we feel compelled to take action and problem-solve. This is a natural reaction that engages the mind in activity.
But we can redirect an automatic response and create something different.
Acknowledge those thoughts and then let them go. Thank them for being such helpful advisors then remind your brain that now is not the time to act.
"Thank you, brain, for helping me out, but I've got it from here. It's okay now to let it go."
"I know you are always looking out for me. By letting this go, I am taking the exact right action to fall back asleep. So it's okay now."
"Dear brain, I don't need all this information right now, but I'll take a look at it tomorrow. Appreciate the reminder. For now, everything is okay to fall back asleep."
Remember, your brain is looking for assurances that it's okay to go back to sleep. You can literally reprogram your subconscious simply by talking to it. (Who knew?) It IS the smartest part about you after all.
Redirecting unconscious thoughts will take some time time and consistency. When it comes to sleep, the brain LOVES a steady pattern so it will do its best to stay in patterns that are known and familiar.
Do not give up!
If your brain tries to convince you with something like, "I'll never get back to sleep now and I'm going to be exhausted at work tomorrow," you can politely disagree. "Brain, I appreciate the survival tactic but I'm okay and it's time to rest now."
Step two is all about noticing, acknowledging, and letting go of automatic thoughts that come up in the middle of the night.
Remember, the brain is looking for cues that it’s SAFE to go back to sleep.
Which leads us to our final step which is quieting the mind.
Now that you have reframed your beliefs about waking up in the middle of the night and learned how to notice, acknowledge, and let go of any automatic thoughts that come up if you're awake, it's time to quiet the mind.
There are many techniques for quieting the mind. I'll give you my top three so you can choose whatever works best for you.
1. Breathing - Tune into your own breath to fall back to sleep. Breath-work is the greatest thing since sliced bread if you ask me because it's so easy and effective. Count to four as you inhale and count to four as you exhale. Easy peasy. Notice how your body and mind relax with every round.
2. Tapping - I'm a big fan of tapping because it works in multiple ways. It breaks the pattern, reprograms the subconscious, and regulates the stress response all at the same time. Learn more about tapping here.
3. Visualization - Visualize whatever makes you sleepy, relaxed or calm. I have a beautiful memory I play in my mind of my Mom lifting me out of the crib as an infant. She's rubbing my back and gently swaying back and forth. Sometimes I picture a pile of puppies in the bed with me (usually Golden Retrievers.) You might picture a person, place, or thing that you love. Perhaps a beautiful color. Visualizations are powerful and they release good chemicals into the body that help you feel safe. So go ahead... visualize the most beautiful, peaceful, relaxing place you can possibly imagine.
If you find yourself still awake after about 20-30 minutes, or even before if you wish, it's perfectly okay to get up and do something you enjoy. In fact, if it preserves a sense of calm, getting up is the exact right course of action to take. We want to let the brain know that this is no big deal at all. In fact, people used to do all the time!
The thing about sleep is the harder we TRY to go to sleep, the harder it is! The key is: accepting whatever stage you're in and then allowing the brain to relax and go back to sleep.
Do you have any questions about sleep? Send them my way and I'll be happy to answer them!
Love + sleep,
Beth Kendall MA, FNTP
Holistic Sleep Coach
Health Disclaimer: The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.
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