There’s no doubt that a good night’s sleep is crucial for a focused and productive day of work and socializing. Productivity and performance are intrinsically tied up with how focused you are, which is disrupted when you find yourself lost in daydreams or even nodding off at your desk.
Perhaps you stopped drinking caffeine or alcohol at an appropriate time, conducted your calming bedtime routine, cut out blue light exposure right before bed, and allowed for at least 7 hours of sleep before the dreaded alarm goes off. You may even benefit from an ergonomic work station, such as with a standing desk or ergonomic work chair to improve posture and blood flow throughout the day. However, even when you have done all the right steps to prepare for a good night’s sleep, there are simply some nights when we wake up and cannot fall back asleep.
Waking up throughout the night is not only annoying, but each hour lost can lead to lost productivity the next day. According to a 2018 study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, sleeping for only 5-6 hours per night drops productivity by 19% at work the next day, and sleeping for less than 5 hours will drop productivity by 29% the next day. Similarly, a 2011 Harvard study of about 7,500 people found that 23.2% of people show signs of insomnia, which led to an estimated 11.3 days of lost productivity among these poor sleepers.
The lack of sleep doesn’t just cost you time and social relationships—it adds up to hurt a company’s bottom line. One study of 4,188 U.S. workers found "significantly worse productivity, performance, and safety outcomes" among those who slept less, and estimated a $1,967 loss in productivity per worker due to poor sleep. Another study estimated that this culture of sleep deprivation costs the U.S. economy $63.2 billion each year.
Luckily, waking up in the middle of the night is a common problem, and there are many environmental and meditative tips you can try to avoid this issue. The beauty of these solutions is that you do not need any equipment, and can try them from almost anywhere, whether you are asleep at home, in a hotel, or even on an airplane.
Remember, everybody is different, and stress will manifest in different ways for different people (or even in different ways for the same person). If one technique does not work for you after one or two tries, no need to force it. Keep trying different techniques until you find a method that works well for you.
General Sleep Hygiene Practices
Reduce or remove light using blackout curtains.
Use an eye mask and earplugs if you are sensitive to noise or light.
- Remove unnecessary electronics from the bedroom.
- Position alarm clock away from the bed, so that you do not “watch the clock” after waking up and cause more stress about being awake.
- Use dim lighting, if any, at night.
Replace night lights with red light.
- Do not use electronic devices for at least 30 minutes before bedtime, since the blue light from screens impedes your brain’s melatonin.
- Keep a consistent sleep schedule.
- Get comfortable, such as adjusting the temperature or your body positioning.
Invest in a white noise machine, or play a soothing white noise playlist/video such as ocean sounds or a soft rainstorm
- Do not nap in the 5-6 hours before bedtime.
- Develop a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Do not eat heavy foods before bed.
- Avoid stimulants (e.g., caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes) before bed.
- Exercise during the day to tire out the body.
- Smell a calming essential oil, such as lavender, chamomile, or ginseng which have been linked with relaxation and improved sleep.
Meditation and Breathing Exercises When You Just Can’t Fall Back Asleep
This method aims to slow down your breathing and the rhythm of your heart. It’s especially beneficial if you have an active imagination, because the counting gives your mind something to do.
To practice, follow these steps:
- Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue behind your upper front teeth;
- Completely exhale through your mouth, making a whooshing sound;
- Inhale through your nose for 4 counts;
- Hold your breath for 7 counts;
- Exhale completely through your mouth for 8 counts;
- Repeat this process for about 5-10 minutes, or until you feel relaxed and drowsy.
Similar to 4-6-8 breathing, triangle breathing will calm your mind and balance your body, especially as you are in the middle of a stressful moment. It is also subtle if you have other people around and don’t want to call attention.
- To start, inhale and exhale once fully;
- On the next breath, count the length of your inhale (for example, 4 counts);
- Then, as you continue to breathe, use that same count duration to inhale, hold, and exhale (for example, if your count is 4, you will inhale for 4 counts, hold for 4 counts, and exhale for 4 counts);
- “Draw this triangle” with your breath for few rounds;
- If you feel comfortable, slowly increase the size of your triangle with one count at a time; if you feel yourself getting out of breath, return to the previous count;
- Concentrate on this triangle breathing for 3-5 minutes, then decrease your count until you return to normal breathing.
The Relaxation Wave
This technique has been scientifically linked with physical changes in the body that relax you, such as slower heartrate, lower blood pressure, and secretion of stress-reducing hormones.
- Sit quietly in a comfortable position, and close your eyes
- Slowly feel a “wave” flow through your body, progressively relaxing the muscles as the wave passes each part of your body
- Start with the toes, soles of your feet, and ankles to deeply relax so that there is no muscles used to keep them up
- Work your way slowly up your calves, knees, thighs, and hips
- Take extra time to relax your stomach muscles since this is a common place to store stress; deeply relax the muscles around your stomach and sides, feeling your breath slowly fill up and release, or even placing a hand on your belly to focus on breathing for a bit
- Keep working your way up your fingertips, hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and face
- With your eyes closed, let your head droop forward or backwards, ensuring to even relax the tongue, eyelids, and forehead as the “wave” of relaxation takes over
- In this fully relaxed state, you can count your breaths or try a breathing technique above to continue releasing tension
- This technique is most effective before meals, since within two hours after meals the digestive processes can interfere with stomach and breathing relaxation
Jot it Down on Paper
Often, sleeplessness stems from worrying, and without other distractions in the dark room your mind can obsess more than usual about anxious thoughts. Many sleep experts recommend keeping a pen and pad on your night table or by your bed, so you can commit your worries to paper.
No matter what you’re obsessing over, rather than ruminating, write it down. This takes the commotion out of your head so you can let it go and clear your mind. This is especially helpful if what’s keeping you up at night is a to-do list running through your head, since you can write it down to ensure nothing is forgotten.
Just make sure to keep the lights dim (or use a flashlight or low lamp) when jotting down notes, as bright light can disrupt your body clock.
Stop your tasks for a moment and use your imagination to visualize a place that fills you with joy.
- Close your eyes and breathe deeply at regular intervals.
- What would you describe as your safe place? Perhaps a favorite beach or rope swing from your childhood? If you don’t have one, an imagined happy place can also be deeply calming.
- Relax and take a few deep breaths, then start to visualize your calm place.
- Focus on the calming place and explore the area in your mind, keeping your imagination open to possibility. What are the sensory experiences you have here? What do you smell? Hear? What sort of textures do you feel?
- If you get distracted, acknowledge any thoughts and emotions, thank the thought for coming to you, and then continue the meditation.
- Stay in the calming place for as long as you like, and keep breathing deeply at a regular pace.
Listen to a Guided Meditation
There are plenty of guided meditations on YouTube, and many specifically dedicated to falling asleep. Although you shouldn’t stare at the screen (since that can wake you back up, remember?), put on one of these videos and turn your phone screen-side-down so that you are not tempted by the blue light. Listen to a calming video like this one or this one, or whatever video you find most helpful, and continue deep breathing as you relax.
The Last Resort
If you’re just not dozing off, get up after about 20 minutes have gone by. You will want to go to another room to sit in a comfortable chair and do a relaxing activity that doesn’t use brain power, like reading, listening to quiet music, or knitting. Keep the lights dim while you distract yourself and try to keep your mind from racing. Do not do anything stressful, like working or paying bills.
It’s important not to stay in bed, even if you’re reading, since this will associate the bed with stress and being awake in your brain. Although it can be difficult to leave your comfortable, warm bed while already grouchy from waking up, this will be an investment in better sleep for the future. Then go back to bed when you feel drowsy enough.
Remember, if you’re feeling stressed to the point that it’s consistently affecting your sleep, it may be time to see a doctor. If you have underlying conditions like depression or anxiety, it’s important to communicate your sleep issues with a mental health professional.
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