This is how to get back to sleep at 3 a.m., according to a neuropsychologist

Kattie ThorndykeAugust 15, 2021

TABLE OF CONTENTS:Why do you wake up early?How do you fall back asleep?3 things to avoid to fall back asleepTurn off the overhead lightsStep away from the fridgeDo seasons affect insomnia?How do you sleep better?FacebookFlipboardLinkedInEmailPocketTwitter



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When you’re sleep-deprived, there’s nothing more frustrating than waking up before your alarm clock goes off. But you are not alone. Up to 30% of Americans suffer from chronic insomnia.

So rather than stress about waking up, learn from New York City-based neuropsychologist, Dr. Sanam Hafeez, about why we wake up so early, how we can fall back asleep, and how to create better sleep habits.

Why do you wake up early?

When you’re stressed, about work, family, or life events, you’re more likely to wake up before your alarm chimes in the morning. In an interview with Ladders News, Hafeez said it’s because your stress hormones are set too high. On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum, if you’re happy and excited about something you have going on the next day or you feel motivated to get up and at it, then you’re just as likely to wake up early.

One particular protein plays a role in waking you up early.

“An hour before you wake up, a protein called Period, the central player of our biological clock, rises,” Hafeez said. “This protein signals your body that it is time to wake up, and your sleep becomes lighter, which is why you wake up before your alarm.”

How do you fall back asleep?

When you’re awake at 3 a.m., the best thing you can do to fall back asleep is to focus on your breath. Hafeez recommends a simple approach: Breathe in through your nose. Breathe out through your mouth. When your mind wanders from your breath, gently bring your focus back.

After a few minutes, if this isn’t helping you fall back asleep, then you can try to journal about the stresses or feelings that are keeping you awake. But it’s also important to keep your frustration about being awake in check, because you want to keep as calm as possible to get back to sleep.

“Writing down your worries may also help you fall back asleep if you are waking up due to stress,” she said. “Turn on a low light and write down your worries. By writing down your worries, you feel as if you are emptying your brain. You may also feel less tense and lighter, which can help you fall back asleep.”

If you’re a fan of a particular meditation app or a guided sleep story in a mindfulness app, you could try that, too.

3 things to avoid to fall back asleep

If you’re serious about falling back to sleep, then you need to avoid doing these three things: scrolling, working and watching TV.

Many people have their phones right next to them at night because it acts as their alarm clock in the morning. The temptation to pick up your phone in the middle of the night can be massive, but Hafeez warned that screens will make it harder to fall back asleep.

“Blue light from computers or phones mimics the natural light of the sun, which tells the mind that it is time to wake up,” she said. “Blue light also suppresses the body’s ability to release melatonin, a hormone that is crucial for sleep and produces cortisol for alertness instead.”

Turn off the overhead lights

Similar to the blue light from screens, overhead lights signal to your body that it’s morning and time to wake up. Even if you’re frustrated, try to chill, in the dark, in order to not wake up any more fully.

“Turning on bright lights can make it more difficult to fall back asleep, as bright lights stimulate wakefulness and affect melatonin production,” Hafeez said.

Step away from the fridge

Lastly, do not wander into the kitchen. A midnight snack will send your body the wrong message.

“The wrong foods can impact your quality of sleep, and when we eat at night, the muscles that digest our food have to work when they should be resting,” Hafeez said. “This can impact your ability to fall asleep and prevent you from getting deep rest.”

Do seasons affect insomnia?

As it turns out, the winter season tends to be when most people find it harder to stay asleep. It’s a combination of holiday-season stress and the fact that we have our heat on high.

“When you heat your bedroom and have heavy blankets, your body has to work harder to stay cool, disrupting your sleep and making you feel more tired during the day,” Hafeez said.

How do you sleep better?

First and foremost, manage your stress and anxiety, Hafeez said. While none of us are immune to the stressors present in our lives, we can try to unwind and destress before bedtime. A few activities to try include reading, meditating, journaling, and listening to calming music.

Second, spend some time setting up a sleep routine for yourself. If you can go to sleep and wake up at a similar time each day, you’ll be on the right track. Hafeez said that it’s the number of uninterrupted hours of sleep that matter, not necessarily the time on your alarm clock:

“If you go to bed at the same time every day, you reinforce your body’s sleep-wake cycle, and you will most likely wake up after seven or eight hours of sleep at a similar time each day,” she said. “It’s important to note that most adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, so it is OK to wake up before your alarm clock, as long as you are getting enough sleep.

Third, try your best not to drink anything alcoholic or caffeinated later in the day, which can take hours to be metabolized by your system.

And lastly, get some exercise. But don’t let exercise be the last thing you do at night so that you maintain your calm bedtime routine.

“Exercise improves sleep for many people and also helps reduce the time it takes to fall asleep,” Hafeez said. “Therefore, you should try to include physical activity into your daily routine. However, avoid vigorous activity at least one hour before bedtime.”

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