The 20 Minute Sleep Rule

The Situation

Stop me if this has happened to you before. You roll over to check the clock for the 4th time that night, only to see it’s 3:00 am. You know it’s far too early to get up, but you just can’t seem to fall back asleep. Your mind continues to race through all the important things you have to do tomorrow, thinking about how they will be impacted by a poor night’s sleep.

“Maybe if I concentrate hard enough I’ll be able to fall back asleep”, you tell yourself... No luck. “Ok, I’ll just count the seconds that go by”, you think, “that is sure to bore me to bed”. Somehow this just makes you more awake. How can this be? After all, these seem like the most logical ways to get your mind to drift off back to sleep. What is the magic solution to this sleep problem?!

Seinfeld awake at night trying to sleep

Waking Up in the Middle of the Night is Normal

Though it may not feel like it at the time, it’s important to know that these midnight wake-ups are actually a pretty normal occurrence. We tend to experience 2 different types of nighttime awakenings during a standard night; a “mini-awakening”, during which we don’t even realize we’re awake (happens up to 20x per hour), and the “observable wake-up”, in which we do wake up but often fall right back asleep (usually happens around ~3-5x per night). While these are both part of a healthy night’s sleep, when observable wake-ups start to keep you up for longer than just a few seconds they can quickly lead to some serious sleep problems.

This inability to fall back asleep is a type insomnia, commonly referred to as “sleep maintenance insomnia”. Insomnia is a widespread problem in today’s society, with an estimated 45% of Americans reporting being affected by it. Whether it’s having difficulty initially trying to fall asleep or experiencing midnight wake-ups, racing minds and restless bodies can rob insomniacs from getting the doctor recommended 7-9 hours of sleep. Sleep-maintenance insomnia is most likely to happen in the early morning, as that's the lightest part of your sleep cycle.

difficulty sleeping at night due to insomnia

Why You Wake Up

The first thing you should do to address this problem is to try and prevent these sleep-disturbances from happening in the first place. This begins with the actions you take throughout the day that set you up for a sound night’s sleep, otherwise known as your

sleep hygiene. Some of the biggest culprits that cause these disturbances include:

  • Consuming caffeine too late in the evening, as it takes your body ~6-8 hours to work the caffeine out of your system

  • Exposing yourself to blue light through nighttime activities such as looking at your phone, going on your computer, or reading in bed with a tablet/device

  • Drinking alcohol before bed. Although it may help you fall asleep, once its effects wear off you’re likely to wake up frequently throughout the night

  • Constantly changing your sleep/wake schedule, as this will interrupt your body’s internal clock (aka circadian rhythm), which helps you naturally fall asleep and wake up.

  • Going to bed in a poor sleep environment, including things such as unnatural noises or light. Using blackout shades or white noise machines can help turn any bedroom into a sleep sanctuary .

What Damage Can it Do

Now even after setting yourself up for a solid night of shuteye, there’s always going to be that random noise, midnight bathroom trip, or a restless partner that can wake you up during the night. Hopefully you drift right back to sleep, but it’s important to have a plan in place for those times when that just isn’t the case. Unfortunately, a couple of these extended wake-ups can quickly turn into a vicious, sleep-depriving cycle.

This situation can start to spiral as stress and anxiety builds each time it happens, making it harder and harder to fall back asleep. According to a Harvard Medical School Special Health Report on improving sleep, insomniacs can often become preoccupied with sleep and the consequences that a poor night’s sleep can have, which they refer to as "insomniaphobia". People may then start to associate these struggles with trying to go to bed, making it even harder for to fall asleep, which can go on for many years.

Always Sunny difficulty sleeping at night

What You Can Do to Fix It When You First Wake Up

It’s already too late for any type of sleeping medication, so what other options do you have? Your goal in those times when you're struggling to fall back asleep is to try to calm and clear your mind. This can be accomplished by:

First off, try to eliminate stress and anxiety before even going to sleep.

  • Using a "sleep journal", write down all your worrying thoughts from the day, helping you let go of them as they're transferred from your mind to the piece of paper.

Don’t stare at the clock!

  • Checking the time will only add to your stress, reminding you how you should be fast asleep right .

Relax your body

  • Make sure your bedroom is cool and dark, and that you’re in a comfortable and cozy position in bed.

  • You can also try progressive muscle relaxation, in which you slowly tighten and release your muscles, creating an overall calming effect.

Clear your head:

  • It’s important to first remind yourself that this is normal and that it’s not your fault, as beating yourself up will only make matters worse.

  • Next try mediation or some other type visualization technique, combining controlled breathing with calming, peaceful images to help reduce anxiety and take your mind off the current stressful situation.

  • If you find your mind wandering that's ok, as even experts in meditation admit it happens to them. It’s important to stay calm, continue your controlled breathing, and slowly bring your mind back to focus.

meditation to clear your mind

What You Can Do to Fix It after 20 Minutes

While these techniques are great, unfortunately they won’t always get the job done. So what should you do in the situations where you just can’t seem to get your mind to calm down? Experts at the Sleep Foundation agree that after 20 minutes of being unable to fall back asleep, you should engage in a calming activity such as reading in bed that will help calmly distract you. This 20 minute period comes from the idea that lying awake in bed for too long may start to foster a connection between your bedroom and being awake.

The top recommended activity for this calming distraction is reading at night. Reading is great in these situations as it requires just enough focus to prevent your mind from wandering, but not too much that it starts to generate substantial mental activity that will wake you up further. As you continue to read, your mind will be put at ease, naturally falling back to sleep. It’s also important that you read a physical book (and not a digital reader), as the blue light from those devices will end up causing more harm than good.

book at night for reading in bed

This used to require getting up and going to another room, as the light needed to properly read the book (and not strain your eyes) would bother your partner while they were sleeping alongside you. Here comes our shameless Night Nook plug, as it gives you the ability to read in bed and not have to wake yourself (or your partner) back up when you walk in and out of the bedroom. The Night Nook can be set up in seconds and without making a sound, allowing you to read at any time without bothering your partner. Even just having the comfort of knowing it’s there to be used if necessary can help put your mind at ease.

So however you choose to handle these situations, it’s important to not let this vicious cycle build on itself and take actions to rectify it ASAP. Make sure to maintain your normal sleep schedule (even after a poor night’s sleep), as although you will be tempted to sleep in, it will only end up making matters worse in the long run. And as always, if problems continue to exist then you should make sure to consult with your doctor about possible more serious health issues and remedies.

Night Nook for reading in bed without disturbing your partner

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