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  • Writer's pictureFelicity Baker

How to Manage Disrupted Sleep

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

This is the second in our two-part blog on sleep. In part 1 we looked at the factors that will set you up for a good night’s sleep. Here we are going to look at what you can do to manage when you wake in the night, what stops you going back to sleep, and what you can do about it.

Nocturnal waking is normal

Many of us wake during the night. In a study of 8937 adult Americans, nocturnal waking was found to be very common. Thirty-five percent of adults in the study reported waking up three or more times per week. Just under half the people who reported nocturnal waking described further difficulty returning to sleep after waking, and around 90% of this group reported the difficulty lasting for more than six months.

Although nocturnal waking has been linked to a number of physical and mental health problems, further research supports the idea that waking in the night may be a normal  phenomenon rather than a manifestation  of insomnia. In fact, segmented sleep was considered the norm in pre-industrial societies. Our modern expectation that we need 8 hours unbroken sleep a night may in fact be unfounded and a less natural way of achieving a good night’s rest.

In the 1990s, a well-known study by Thomas Wehr supported the historical findings that a segmented sleep pattern is a natural phenomenon. He found that when subjected to natural patterns of light and dark with 14 hours of darkness per night, participants were found to gradually shift to a biphasic sleep pattern. This involved sleeping in two four-hour phases separated by about an hour of wakefulness.

What stops you going back to sleep

So if nocturnal waking is normal, why do we need a blog about how to manage it?

Unfortunately, the message that we need up to 8 hours undisturbed sleep has become very pervasive. We have come to expect 7-8 hours for a ‘good night’s sleep’ and if we don’t get it, we worry about the impact this will have on our focus and concentration, our ability to function and our stress levels.

This means that when we wake in the night our brains quickly start to focus on the negative consequences of not sleeping through, and we start to put pressure on ourselves to get back to sleep. The more we ‘try’ to sleep the harder it becomes to actually sleep. Our brains switch into high alert and we pick up on any small sounds or sensations around us, we think through our to-do list for the next day, we worry about our children growing up, or some catastrophic event befalling us. Indeed, our brains know no bounds in the night, readily running amok with a whole gamut of perceived threats that don’t normally bother us during waking hours.

This creates a vicious circle of wakefulness, perceived threat, pressure to sleep and increasing wakefulness that makes it harder and harder to get back to sleep.

What you can do to relax back into sleep

The trick here is to learn to accept that waking during the night is a natural part of the sleep-wake cycle. Stop the tussle with difficult thoughts and feelings and the pressure to go back to sleep and just accept that you are awake.

1. Connect with the present moment

Sometimes, stepping back from the catastrophic thoughts and connecting with the present moment using slow rhythmic breathing or a mindfulness exercise can help to quieten the mind, calm the body and settle you into a more restful emotional state.

2. Get up

In the past, people would routinely get up and do something for a couple of hours. So, if after 30 minutes you are still wide awake, the advice is to do exactly this. Get up and engage in a mundane, calm activity. This might be reading, meditating, listening to an audiobook, doing a crossword.

Warm drink

It can help to have a warm non-caffeinated drink, such as peppermint tea or warm milk to soothe the body and stimulate parasympathetic nervous system arousal.

Stay away from screens

Don’t watch television, go on the computer or your phone as the blue light will trick your body into feeling wide awake.

Return to bed

As your body and mind settle and you start to feel drowsy again, return to bed and allow yourself to drift into a restful state in preparation for sleep. Remember to notice if your brain starts telling you the negative stories about the consequences of not sleeping, or putting pressure on you to go back to sleep. When you notice this, just say to yourself “I notice my brain is telling me the ‘not sleeping is bad’ story again” and see if you can step back, connect with the breath and accept that you are awake, that it is natural and it will be ok.

If you found this helpful and would like to find out more about coping in a crisis, check out some of the other blogs. Or get in touch to find out more about our workplace wellbeing and resilience interventions.


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