Sleep Calm & Carry On: What Can You Do if You Wake Up, and You Can’t Get Back to Sleep?

Posted by Dr Sophie Bostock - Sleep Expert on 9th Jul 2024

Sleep Calm & Carry On: What Can You Do if You Wake Up, and You Can’t Get Back to Sleep?

Waking up during the night can be a natural part of sleep. And in this article, I’m going to explain why that is. I’ll also give you some useful strategies for coping next time this happens to you.

Sleep stages explained

You’ve probably heard that we sleep in cycles. You might even wear a sleep tracking device which estimates how much of the different stages you get.

Sleep stages refer to different patterns of electrical activity in the brain while we sleep. Here is an overview of the different stages of sleep we all experience each and every night:

  • Stage 1 is a light transition stage as our consciousness starts to switch off.
  • Stage 2 is where we spend most of our time asleep and involves a slowing down of heart and breathing rates, as the brain starts to strengthen certain types of memory.
  • Stage 3 or deep sleep is the juicy, physically restorative stage of sleep where it’s quite hard to wake someone up. This is prime time for restoring energy levels, repairing damaged tissues and strengthening the immune system.

After deep sleep, we go back into a lighter stage of sleep called REM or rapid eye movement. You’re most likely to remember your dreams if you wake up from REM sleep. This is when the brain is busy re-balancing your emotions and pruning back unimportant memories to give you more capacity for learning.

Every time we pass through all 4 stages of sleep, this is called a sleep cycle. Each sleep cycle lasts an average of 90 minutes, so, you’ll probably have between 4 and 6 cycles every night. Cycles in the first part of the night contain more deep sleep, and cycles in the early hours of the morning have more REM sleep.

When does waking up during the night become a problem?

A woman holding her head in her hands as she struggles to get back to sleep after waking up during the night. The time on the digital clock in the foreground of the picture reads 3:22 AM

There is no perfect recipe for the number of different stages of sleep you need. And it’s likely to change from one night to the next depending on what you’ve done during the day.

Crucially, we often wake up between sleep cycles . This can be a natural part of sleep and doesn’t necessarily disturb the overall quality of our sleep. We usually roll over, go straight back to sleep, and forget about it.
The problem comes when we get anxious about waking up. If we’re not expecting it, we can wake up with that heart racing, tense feeling on high alert.

Stress, alcohol, caffeine, dehydration, late night eating or hormonal changes can all disrupt the deeper stages of sleep. Any of them can make you more likely to wake up in response to sounds, movements or changes in temperature. 

Typically, the more frustrated you feel about waking up, the more anxious you feel about whether you’ll be able fall asleep again. The harder you try to fall back to sleep, the more elusive sleep can become. 

What to do if you wake up during the night

If you wake up during the night, reassure yourself that it’s perfectly normal. Go to the toilet if you need to, have a sip of water, make sure you’re not too hot… Then get comfortable and close your eyes. If your body needs more sleep, you need to trust that it will come.

Enjoy the sensation of feeling relaxed, safe, and comfortable with nothing to do. If you feel yourself getting anxious, try 5 slow controlled breaths, all the way in through the nose, and all the way out. Feel yourself relax with every out breath.

If thoughts start to bother you, say to yourself the word, THE. Two seconds later say it again. THE. The. This simple, dull word is actually quite an effective thought blocker when you’re half asleep.

If you’re still feeling wide awake after about 15 or 20 minutes, don’t just lie there getting frustrated. When you start to recognise anxious thoughts, get out of bed and read a book, watch a film, do some sewing, colouring in or another relaxing activity . The goal is to do something calm and relaxing, which takes your mind off falling asleep. When your eyelids start to feel heavy, and you’re struggling to keep them open, climb back into bed, and let sleep take over.
Our aim is to create or reinforce a positive association between your bed and sleep, rather than teaching the brain that the brain is a place to worry about not sleeping. While you might be a bit tired in the morning, the good news is that you’ll build up more pressure to sleep for the following night.

How to get back to sleep: a video recap

Next time we’ll look into  how you can help the brain and body prepare for a restful sleep, so that you’re less likely to wake up between sleep cycles.

Thanks for reading, and sleep well.

authors profile
Dr Sophie Bostock
Sleep Expert
Sophie brings a wealth of expertise to the role having spent the last six years researching and championing the importance of sleep science in NHS and corporate settings. Sophie was responsible for improving access to the award-winning digital sleep improvement programme, Sleepio, as an NHS Innovation Accelerator Fellow. She has delivered hundreds of talks, including for TEDx and Talks@Google, and regularly features as a media sleep expert.
Read more from Dr Sophie Bostock