Waking up in the middle of the night is a nightmare in itself, but what do you do when you can’t fall back to sleep again? 3am waker Ayesha Muttucumaru seeks advice on her chronic case of 'pre-dawn panic'
I hate 3am. Rather than far away dreaming, I’m bolt upright, looking at the clock and the little anxieties and niggles that flutter in and out of my brain during the day - that awkward thing I said, that work deadline that’s coming up – crowd in when I’m most vulnerable and least equipped to deal with them. I’m sleep-deprived and irrational and before I know it, a small worry has escalated into something bigger, louder and less easy to ignore. I call this state of mind, ‘pre-dawn panic’ - thoughts are swirling, I’m sweating, my heart’s racing and my eyes are glued open for the rest of the night and I know I’ve sabotaged the day ahead. It’s highly enjoyable stuff and a sleep cycle I've found increasingly hard to break out of as I've gotten older and personal and professional pressures have started to pile up.
We’re a nation that’s too stressed to sleep with half of Brits struggling to get enough of the stuff on a regular basis. According to a sleep survey conducted by market intelligence agency Mintel , 39 per cent of us fall short of clocking up the recommended seven hours with many willing to “try anything” to improve the quality of their sleep. Women are significantly affected, with a large proportion saying that they find it difficult to both get to sleep and stay that way - waking up throughout the night is common - and it’s a problem that I have first-hand experience of.
Why can worries feel worse at night?
“Worries can seem insurmountable because we're alone with our thoughts and there's little we can do about them at that hour,” says hypnotherapist, anxiety expert and author of The Anxiety Solution , Chloe Brotheridge . “What’s worse is if you have anxiety about your night-time anxiety.” Ah yes, I know this feeling well. “Concerns that you'll be too tired to handle the day can make you even more wired in the early hours of the morning, and things can spiral.” We’ve all been there - it’s often the times when I need to sleep most when I’ve got a busy day ahead that I get the least.
Are there any ways to prevent it or stop it in its tracks when it comes on? Thankfully yes. Chloe and nutritional therapist Daniel O’Shaughnessy have given me some extremely insightful night time reading to get on with in terms of what to before bed to reduce the likelihood of it happening and how to stop it when it strikes. The reasons for anxiety are far-reaching though and if problems persist, it could be worth booking in with your GP to address any underlying issues and to devise a longer-term plan that's targeted to your individual needs. Hopefully though, the below advice together with some of the other techniques I’ve learned over the last few months will act as a useful starting point.
What to do before bed
1. ‘Brain dump’ your worries into a notepad
“When we put our thoughts and feelings into words and down on paper, we get them in perspective,” says Chloe. “ Studies show it calms the ‘fight or flight’ response.” Putting ‘pain’ to paper, so to speak, acts as a useful way to process your feelings about certain situations. It helps relax your amygdala, the set of neurons in the brain that play a key role in the processing of emotions, which can therefore help you to sleep more peacefully.
Interestingly also, a recent study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology found that writing a to-do list before bed was a useful way to off-load thoughts of stress and worry about what needs to be done the next day from your consciousness. Participants fell asleep nine minutes sooner than those who wrote about the previous day’s accomplishments, which the authors noted was a similar effect to certain sleep medications.
The calmer your days are, the calmer your nights will be - have breaks at work to move, laugh or get outside
2. Start getting ready for bed during the day
This doesn’t mean changing into your PJs at midday (although how great would that be?!), but rather finding pockets of calm amidst the chaos of your working day. “Waking up in the middle of the night is probably a sign that you need to make some changes to the whole of your day, rather than just before bed,” says Chloe. “Building in small moments to slow down and take care of yourself can make you feel less overwhelmed. The calmer your days are, the calmer your nights will be - have breaks at work to move, laugh or get outside.”
Pair with a screen-free wind-down routine an hour before bed to make the shift into night mode less of a shock to the system. “Consider creating a bedtime ritual that helps you to slow down, perhaps having a warm drink, taking your time to massage moisturiser into your face and reading a book,” says Chloe. The blue light from phones has been shown to inhibit melatonin production (the sleep hormone), so the earlier you can disconnect, the better.
3. Limit sugar, alcohol and caffeine intake
Certain foods and drinks can have a huge impact on sleep. However, there’s no need to cut back completely if you're prone to a bout of pre-dawn panic - just be cautious of when and how much of them you have. “You should limit coffee in the day and switch to decaf after 1pm,” advises nutritional therapist, Daniel O’Shaughnessy. “Excess caffeine can interfere with the sleep cycle and as a result, you’re more likely to wake up in the middle of the night because of it.”
Blood sugar imbalances can also cause you have a less than smooth night’s sleep, so Daniel recommends avoiding eating a couple of hours before bed, limiting the amount of sugar you have during the day and eating a protein-rich dinner to help balance blood sugar levels until you wake up.
When it comes to alcohol, only drink it with meals. This slows down the rate at which it’s absorbed into the bloodstream and, if you stop when you’ve finished eating, your body will have a greater amount of time to process it before you go to bed which will therefore lessen its impact on your sleep cycle. Alcohol causes you to spend less time in its deeper REM stage which can leave you feeling even more worse for wear the next morning.
What to do when ‘pre-dawn panic’ strikes
1. Try touch therapy
If you find yourself unable to get back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night, Chloe recommends trying a therapy technique called ‘Havening.’ This involves stroking the tops of your arms with your hands to comfort yourself. “Physical touch causes us to produce serotonin, so you feel reassured and soothed,” she explains. Used as a tool to help reduce the symptoms of anxiety and depression, it’s thought to help break the link between a negative memory of an event and the distress felt as a result of it.
When your out-breath is longer than your in-breath, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which you can think of as your relaxation mode
2. Take your focus from your thoughts to your breath or body
As simple as it sounds, I’ve personally found this recommendation one of the most effective for helping me go back to sleep. I’ve been trying a technique I read about in The 4 Pillar Plan , £8, by Dr Rangan Chatterjee called ‘3, 4, 5 breathing,’ which involves breathing in for three seconds, holding the breath for four seconds and then exhaling for five. “When your out-breath is longer than your in-breath, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which you can think of as your relaxation mode,” writes Dr Chatterjee. It’s important to activate this part of our nervous system (the opposite to our sympathetic nervous system or ‘fight or flight’ mode), as when we do, digestive enzymes are released, saliva production increases, our heart rate drops and our muscles relax. This allows for more efficient digestion and helps us to destress and sleep better too.
If concentrating on your breathing doesn’t work though, focus your attentions elsewhere. “Slowly scan your body from head to toe, imagining each body part relaxing as you go,” says Chloe. “It helps to take you out of your head and into your body instead.”
3. Repeat a stress-busting mantra
Another effective way to tame a wandering mind is to have a calming mantra up your sleeve. Repeating it silently to yourself can act as a form of meditation or relaxation to provide short-term relief in times of stress. “My favourite is 'No matter what happens; I'll handle it' from Susan Jeffers, author of Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway,” says Chloe. I also find ‘Release the old, embrace the new, moving on’ which I learned during a hypnotherapy massage at Gazelli House useful too, as well as ‘This too shall pass,’ to remind myself that the anxiety I’m feeling at that point in time is only temporary.
4. Take the pressure off
As mentioned earlier, focussing on the sleep you’re missing can make the situation worse. “The harder you try to go back to sleep, the harder it can be,” says Chloe. “Instead, surrender to the fact that just laying there is okay too."
"Allow yourself to be awake and trust that resting with your eyes closed in bed is good enough for now.” Take the pressure off and sleep will come. Eventually.