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We hear so much about techniques to help us get to sleep — but getting back to sleep? Not so much.
If you’re anything like me, there are nights where you fall asleep peacefully, only to find yourself staring at the roof hours later after you’ve woken up again during the night.
Surprisingly, there are tips and tricks specifically for this situation.
Professor Dorothy Bruck, a Sleep Psychologist at the Sleep Health Foundation, says the first thing to understand is that it’s completely natural to wake up during the night. You only have a problem if you find yourself unable to get back to sleep. If that sounds familiar, here are some pointers to keep in mind for next time:
1. Don’t worry.
When you wake up in the middle of the night, your brain often decides this is an ideal time to begin worrying. And because you’re sleepy, your thoughts can just go around and around and around. Not helpful, huh?
“What you want to do when you’re lying in bed is to make sure that you’re not worrying about thoughts that have a lot of emotional heat. It’s not the time to think about the boss that you disagree with, your relationship with your mother-in-laws or whatever it is,” Professor Bruck says.
She recommends setting some time aside during the day where you can get your worrying or planning out of the way.
“One simple way to do this is get a bit of paper and draw a line down the middle with your worries on one side, and what options there might be to deal with those worries. Then when you’re lying in bed at night and those worries start to come in, you say, ‘Well, actually now’s not the time to think about those worries’,” Professor Bruck says. (Post continues after gallery.)
2. Try mental imagery.
By imagining a relaxing place, you can distract yourself back to sleep. It doesn’t matter what that place is, as long as it’s neutral.
“Some people like to plan a holiday that they’d like to have, or they [imagine] their favourite place — a spot in the rainforest by a babbling brook, or walking along the beach,” Professor Bruck says.
“Another one that [experts] say to people is to think back of the way if they used to walk to their primary school; to imagine themselves walking along that route again and what they saw. So once again it’s getting your visual system going and distracting your mind,” Professor Bruck says.
3. Try slow breathing.
Breathing techniques are an effective way to get back to sleep. They do take time to practice, so if you find they don't work for you instantly, don't give up. If you need a starting point, Professor Bruck has a technique she favours when she needs to get back to sleep.
"Begin by slowing down your breathing, and then you count your breaths up to 10. Visualise each number in a different colour, so you get your visual system going as well. So you might start with the number one and think of that in bright pink, then you do one breath. Then you’ll do the second breath and you’ll think about the number two in green," she explains.
"So you’re using your visual system in thinking about a bright colour, you’re slowing down your breath, and you’re distracting your mind by counting up to 10. Once you get to 10 you just start again and count up."
It's useful to keep one hand on your tummy just above your belly button and monitor your breathing to make sure it is deep and slow. Try to make your breaths go right down into your diaphragm, because that helps to relieve stress. (Post continues after video.)
4. Try muscle relaxation.
Another technique you can try is a muscle relaxation technique, like progressive muscle relaxation.
"Start at your toes and you tighten them for seven seconds then you release them. Then you work your way up your body — you tighten your knees area, your trunk area, your arms, and so on. So it’s tightening the muscles, then releasing the muscles, and breathing slowly at the same time," Professor Bruck explains.
5. Don’t look at the clock.
When you wake up and want to get back to sleep, avoid looking at the clock (if you can). Understand that rest is good; so even if you're lying in bed and drifting in and out of sleep, know that just being restful is a good thing to do. Looking at the clock can provoke an emotional reaction during the night, so try your best not to.
"Think to yourself, 'Well, I know that the alarm is set' or, 'I know I’ll wake up naturally and that’ll be fine and it doesn’t really matter what time it is'," Professor Bruck suggests.
"So what you’re really doing then is trying to put yourself in the present, which is sort of a mindfulness technique. So you’re not thinking about the past, you’re not thinking about the future — how long you still might be able to sleep — but you’re putting yourself very much in the present and that’s really useful for sleep," Professor Bruck says. (Post continues after gallery.)
6. Set a sleeping routine.
Not having a sleep routine can be a major factor if you're waking up during the night. By matching your time in bed with how much sleep you need, you will often have a better night's sleep.
"If you need seven and a half hours of sleep each night, it's important to only spend seven and a half hours in bed. One of the techniques that we use for people who have fragmented sleep is we encourage them to go to bed a bit later because then you’ve got a bit more sleep pressure to see you through the night, not be in bed longer than the total time that you expect to sleep," Professor Bruck says.
7. Consider possible reasons.
Some factors that might contribute to you waking up during the night, and not being able to fall back asleep, include alcohol and caffeine. Surprisingly, these substances don't just affect you when you're trying to nod off at 10pm.
"Limit your caffeine intake to only a small amount in the morning hours and no more later in the day, because that can be a real reason you're not falling back asleep," Professor Bruck says.
"Even though you might not have any trouble going to sleep, caffeine can affect you in the second half of the night. Alcohol is the same; it will fragment the second half of the night’s sleep,"
Poor sleep during the night can also be an indicator of mental health problems like depression or anxiety. If you are consistently having trouble getting back to sleep you should see your GP for further advice.
What are your tricks for getting a good night's sleep?