Your eyes snap open in the darkness… it must be sometime after 2 am. What woke you? Was it something you heard? Something you dreamed? You sit up in bed with your heart pounding.
The house is quiet.
Now how are you going to get back to sleep?
When Things Go Bump In the Night
Whether what woke you was imagined or real, the jolt awake has triggered your body’s “fight or flight” response and you are now, officially and irrevocably, awake. Here’s what you can do to help yourself settle down and resume a restful night’s sleep, rather than having a brush with acute insomnia.
- First, be safe. Make sure that your house is safe. On the off chance that there is an intruder, you want to be dialing 9-1-1 rather than trying to put yourself back to sleep. Check on your kids or pets if you have them. Try to ascertain what made the sound, or whether you were dreaming.
- Lie back. Once you’re sure that all is secure, settle back into bed. Rest your head on the pillow and intentionally relax all the muscles in your body.
- Take a few deep breaths. Your breathing can help to regulate the release of hormones that control the fight or flight response. Quickened pulse and respiration encourage the fight or flight response; slow, relaxed breathing slows the heart rate and literally calms the body. Relax and breathe. Let thoughts or worries go, if you can.
- If you can’t shake it off, get up. If you can’t relax or if you’re caught in thoughts that are fearful or worrisome, get up. You can’t “make” yourself go to sleep, no matter how hard you try. Distraction is a much more effective technique in these circumstances than lying restlessly in bed, staring at the ceiling.
- Read, or write it down. Don’t turn on the television or the computer—the artificial, bright light can encourage your body to think it’s time to wake up. Instead, pick up a semi-boring book (one that won’t suck you in and keep you up all night). If you’re still awake because something is worrying you, forego the book and pick up a pen. Writing out what’s bothering you has a therapeutic effect. Writing down a to-do list can help an over-stuffed mind settle down. If you’re angry with someone, writing a “letter” to them can help you find a little peace—just don’t send it.
Once you’ve been up for 20 minutes or so, or you begin to feel sleepy again, it’s time to head back to bed. Lie back and relax again. Close your eyes, get comfortable, and let the night’s events go. You’ll be far more likely to fall asleep after a distraction that allows your body to return to a restful state.