Waking in the Middle of the Night

As the last wisps of a dream fade, you come to, and there’s no sign of dawn. The clock on your nightstand reads 3:14 AM, a time with no meaning aside from its proximity to the advancing morning. Occasional traffic noises, footsteps, and dog barks are the only indicators of civilization; the solitude feels like you might as well be on the Moon.

Waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall back asleep is a very common type of insomnia. This is known as sleep maintenance insomnia. Its better-known cousin, wherein you are unable to fall asleep when you first go to bed is known as sleep initiation (or onset) insomnia.

Broken sleep isn’t just a matter of losing time spent sleeping. Sleep is like a song, with a beginning, middle, and end, and it plays on a loop throughout the night. Missing part of the song means missing an important part of sleep (most often stage 4, the deepest non-REM sleep stage, or REM sleep itself, in which you dream).

Sleep experts recommend getting out of bed briefly when you can’t fall back asleep after 10-20 minutes. This is to make sure your subconscious continues to associate your bed and bedroom with sleeping. While you’re up, find a soothing activity that will coax your body out of alertness: read a simple book, listen to gentle music or an audiobook, or sit or lie quietly in another room with low lighting. If you choose not to do any activity, let your thoughts come and go, trying not to give any of them much focus. This can be helpful during the day as well, to calm the mind and reduce anxiety that may cause moments of unwanted alertness.