Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Awake late at night.

The thought can be very troublesome to those who frequently experience it.  That nightly, predictable, wake-up in the wee hours can become so ingrained and expected that on the rare night it doesn’t happen, you would think a miracle of biblical proportions took place.

When sleep becomes elusive in the middle of the night, there are some clear must-dos and must-don’ts.

The first step is to establish your level of sleepiness/alterness.  Ask yourself:  Are you just experiencing a brief moment of wake, maybe just to use the bathroom or simply change sleeping positions?  If so, you can expect to return to sleep fairly easily.  Or do you feel like everything is ramping up:  mind racing, heart racing, fidgety, tossing and turning?  These are cues that sleep may not return for a while.  And the best thing to do is to leave the bedroom.

As Dr. Pavlov famously demonstrated over 100 years ago, all animals develop associations.  We develop responses to meaningful stimuli.  Just as the famous Russian’s dogs associated a bell ringing on the door (him entering the room) with a bit of meat powder (he was studying digestion so he needed the dogs to salivate), humans can begin to associate the bed, bedroom, and even bedtime with alertness.  This conditioning happens when you increasingly try to will/force yourself to sleep or back to sleep after waking (which by the way, all mammals normally wake at least a few times each night).

The next step is not to check the time.  This is one of those seemingly begnine little habits that most people have.  The problem is that doing so often leads to increased frustration and alertness, delaying your return to sleep.  Do whatever it takes:  move some clocks, avoid all backlit screens (they display time), don’t sleep with your watch on, etc.  Knowing the time is a “want”, not a “need”, and you may be amazed how avoiding it reduces sleep-related anxiety.

When you leave the bed, keep any light around you dim and ideally incandescent (old fashioned, heat-generating bulb) or candlelight.  Have a spot already set up on your couch or comfortable chair and do something you don’t mind doing:  read (paper material, not a tablet), listen to a story, listen to music, do some crosswords or a puzzle, play some solitaire with real cards, journal, color, knit, etc.  Get the idea?  Don’t try to bore yourself back to sleep.

Keep yourself warm.  In the winter months, leaving the bed when you’re alert can be daunting in a cold house.  (Side note: humans sleep better in a cool/cold environment with ample bedding and blankets).  Simple things like wearing a robe or sweatshirt, slippers, a heating blanket on the couch, a glass of warm milk or herbal tea, turning on the fireplace, etc., can make the whole experience less physically taxing.

Then, if/when the classic sleep cues begin (head nodding, eyes drooping, re-reading sentences, etc.), calmly go back to bed.  Repeat if needed.

This process, called “stimulus control” in sleep lingo, may take some effort.  The good news is that it is the most effective of all behavioral strategies for middle of the night awakenings, and it’s not something that you’ll need to do every night.  Just as Dr Pavlov was able to show that he could reverse the conditioned response of his dogs (salivating) by repeatedly entering the lab and NOT offering meat powder to his dogs, you can reverse your conditioned response of becoming fully awake during the night by doing this stimulus control that I’ve described.

Like more help with your sleep?  Contact me for an Sleep Coaching session via cell or Skype!  And for you Android insomniacs, your long-awaited Android version of my Sleep On Cue app is well underway…stay tuned!

Til morning,

Michael

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