How To Fall Back Asleep In The Middle Of The Night

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Waking up in the middle of the night for no apparent reason is endlessly frustrating. The anxiety of being awake in the early hours can lead to rising panic, given that we know the longer it takes us to get back to sleep, the worse we’re going to feel the next day. Once that panic sets in and cortisol levels are spiked, it’s even harder to achieve the calm and relaxed state we need to be in in order to drop off to sleep again.

The reasons for wakefulness are varied, and can include everything from eating too late or drinking too much alcohol to stress and hormonal imbalances. “Other factors include having mirrors in the bedroom, which can reflect light and stimulate wakefulness, as well as exposure to external light sources like neon signs or streetlights,” says Dr Randolph Willis, medical director at Clinic Les Alpes. “Noise disturbances from neighbours or other sources can also prevent restful sleep – as can having a partner who snores.” Luckily, there are things you can do to help you nod off again before your anxiety spirals. Here are some Vogue-approved tricks to try.

Control your breathing

According to sleep experts everywhere, careful, considered breathing is one of the best ways to get yourself back into the right head space to encourage sleep. The Sleep Foundation recommends the 4-7-8 method: breathe in for four seconds, hold it for seven seconds and then breathe out for eight seconds. Not only will this help steal focus away from panicked thoughts, Dr Michael Bruce (otherwise known as The Sleep Doctor) explains that it helps your body to expel any unwanted carbon dioxide sitting at the bottom of your lungs. This means your heart doesn’t have to work as hard which brings your heart rate right down. A good sleeping heart rate will be between 40 and 50 bpm.

Settle for rest

If you’ve woken up and can’t get back to sleep, try getting yourself into a state of quiet wakefulness. Instead of stressing over sleep, try to focus on resting with your eyes closed instead. It’s thought that this approach can help eliminate anxiety around sleep, and focusing on doing this–rather than getting to sleep again–is also a good way of preparing your body for the relaxation stage that comes before sleep. Closing your eyes for a short while is also a way of restoring balance between your sympathetic nervous system–which kicks in when you feel anxious or stressed–and your parasympathetic nervous system, which is stimulated when you’re resting. If that doesn’t work and you find yourself stressing about how little sleep you’re going to get, rest assured that even some is better than none: a 2023 study revealed that a 20-minute nap can improve sleepiness and performance, and even a minuscule six-minute nap can improve memory.

Smile, scan, or sing

Although you might not feel particularly happy about being wide awake, smiling releases feel-good hormones like dopamine and serotonin, both of which play a key role in inducing sleep. They also trigger the body’s parasympathetic nervous system, which helps us feel calm and sleepy. Body scanning is another expert-endorsed approach that works by switching your focus from rising sleep anxiety to scanning yourself from top to toe. Start at your baby toe and work your way up to the top of your head. If you get distracted by whirring thoughts, you need to start over. Finally, your partner may not thank you for this but singing is a good way to stimulate your vagus nerve, which carries signals between your brain and heart and runs through your larynx and pharynx. Increasing your vagal tone is associated with a lower heart rate, which is an important precursor to sleep. If some gentle singing is out of the question, try humming instead, which has the same vibrational effect on your vocal cords and thus the same effect on your vagus nerve.

Practice paradoxical intention

Becoming preoccupied with not getting back to sleep can be hugely stressful in the middle of the night. To try and combat this anxiety, and get back to sleep, experts recommend practicing reverse psychology by telling yourself that you’re not tired and that you don’t need to go back to sleep. While several studies prove its efficacy, the idea behind it is that by engaging with what you fear most–in this case staying awake–the anxiety around it naturally starts to diminish.

This article was originally published on Vogue.com

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