Q & A: Getting Back to Sleep at 3

What can you do when insomnia strikes in the middle of the night, a woman wrote to Ask The Savvy Insomniac.

I’ve dealt with this one myself. Here’s how:

reading at nightWhat to do when insomnia strikes in the middle of the night? A woman writing to Ask The Savvy Insomniac described her situation this way:

“I have the type of insomnia where I wake up to go to the bathroom around 3 a.m. and then I can’t fall back to sleep. Immediately I say to myself, here we go, I need to go to the bathroom really quick and try not to wake up too much. I try not to think about anything and get right back into bed. But then I start to have a lot of anxieties and tension. My mind starts racing and I can’t quiet it enough to fall back to sleep. I stay in bed, but I get progressively more upset about being awake.”

How, she asked, could she train herself to fall back to sleep after going to the bathroom?

I’ve dealt with this one myself. It is galling to awaken in the dead of the night and know you need more shut-eye, yet be unable to fall back to sleep.

Looking for a Cause

One thing to consider is whether the cause of your wake-ups is within your power to change. If needing to go to the bathroom is the issue, maybe cutting down on liquids (particularly alcohol) in the evening would enable you to sleep through the night, or at least sleep longer.

The culprit may lie in the environment. Once I overheard a man talking about the frequent wake-ups he experienced at 3:04 a.m. One night he stayed up to investigate the situation and found that the water softener in his home came on with a loud blast at exactly 3:04 in the morning! Setting the water softener to run at an earlier time, when he was sleeping more deeply, solved the problem.

So You’re Awake: Now What?

I know a couple of middle-of-the-night insomnia sufferers whose solution is to lie in bed listening to books on CD, and eventually drift off. An insomniac writing on the Internet uses deep breathing and relaxation exercises in bed to return to sleep. More power to these folks, I say. Do what works.

But If I wake up at night, the worst thing for me is to stay in bed. Inevitably I start feeling warmer, and a thousand negative thoughts clamor for attention. Getting up to do something is the only thing that helps (though crawling out from under warm covers in the winter can be brutal). I leave the bedroom and read till my head starts nodding. Then I head back to bed.

Sleep experts talk about insomniacs’ need to break the associations that trigger wakefulness in bed. The more time awake we spend in bed, so the theory goes, the more wakefulness becomes a fixed pattern, and the more awake we’re likely to be. I suspect this is how it works in me.

So if insomnia strikes in the middle of the night, I plant myself in the comfy chair in my office and read till I’m sleepy. I don’t always manage to slide over the hump, but sometimes I do.

What do you do when you wake up in the middle of the night? Does it put you back to sleep?

Author: Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

2 thoughts on “Q & A: Getting Back to Sleep at 3”

  1. I try a number of things: taking a pain reliever if there’s physical discomfort; valerian and melatonin; classical music on radio; tv if I really need distraction from ruminating; and mindful breathing, which is my first remedy.


  2. I’m envious if you can get the mindful breathing to work on a regular basis! Once in a while, it has worked for me. But only if on the day before I’ve had lots of physical exercise.


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