I was troubleshooting sleep with a client, and she shared with me that, upon honest reflection, she can be anxious about not getting enough sleep because of staying up to get other things done she couldn’t do earlier in the day. Therefore, when it came time for bed, her mind and body were not prepared for the transition. Therefore, falling asleep took longer, and anxiety came up from thinking of how she’s not going to get enough sleep, which kept her awake even longer.
When she described this to me, I completely understood what she meant. I myself do a similar thing where I get in my own head in thinking, “Oh no, I am not getting as much sleep tonight,” which only makes the sleep I can get worse anyway. For me, I have (and still continue to work on) often put this thought in my head of, “If it’s less than 8 hours, I will feel tired tomorrow,” or something along those lines. Therefore, any interruption in my sleep puts fuel on the fire of that thought. Essentially, I am creating a self-fulfilled prophecy of how energized or fatigued I will be the next day – before that day even comes!
That doesn’t sound fun or helpful at all, does it? It is counterproductive, yet so easy a trap to fall into.
There are a couple of aspects of sleep that are helping shift my thinking and be less in my head about my sleep that I would like to share with you. First, we need to understand a little more about sleep cycles. When we sleep, there are actually multiple small sleep cycles that occur. They tend to range from 60 – 90 minutes (except for right at the beginning). Each cycle consists of four stages (you can check out more info here.
- N3 – Also known as Slow-Wave Sleep, or Deep Sleep
- REM (Rapid Eye Movement) – Where most of our dreaming occurs
N1 is basically the initial dosing off. You could easily wake up, but if not, you’ll transition quickly to N2. From there, you go into N3 – the deeper(est) part of sleep, along with REM afterward. Then the cycle starts over and you go to N1 (sometimes) and N2, so on and so forth. This is why, sometimes, if you wake up at night, you might feel fine and decently alert, and other times you feel super groggy and struggle. This is because you are being woken up (interrupted) at different stages of a sleep cycle.
For me, this was really helpful to know. The reason is I would get in my own head whenever I woke up in the night. Naturally – such as if I rolled over and woke up briefly, or if I naturally woke up to go to the bathroom would think “Oh no, I am getting broken sleep, this is bad!” By knowing about the nature of sleep cycles, I realized that I probably am waking up at less deep stages of sleep, and not interrupting the critical parts of my sleep. This, in turn, helps me to take the psychological pressure off, and be more at ease about my rest. When I am more at ease about my rest, I think more objectively and accurately of how I actually am feeling the next day – instead of how I think I ought to be feeling (back to when I said “self-fulfilled prophecy” – I am expecting to be tired, so I DO feel more tired).
The second thing that is helpful is sometimes, depending on when a sleep cycle ends, you might actually feel more alert and ready to wake up before your alarm is set to go off. Have you ever noticed, sometimes, that you wake up naturally 30 – 90 minutes before your alarm is supposed to go off, and you actually (when paying attention) feel fairly alert? But what do you do – do you get up, or go back to bed? If you are me, I ALWAYS go back to bed. I think that I’ll gain more by getting those last precious minutes of sleep in. But, ironically, I may just get into the middle of a sleep cycle, and my alarm jars me awake in the middle of a deep sleep stage. Now, I feel groggy and out of it, and have a hard time waking up, even though I “got more rest.”
I am now trying to think more of “how awake do I feel, could I just get up?” If it’s within one or one and half hours before my alarm, that could be a reasonable thing to do. What it will do is I’ll feel better in the morning anyway, and I’ll naturally feel more tired the following evening, making falling asleep the next night even better – locking in that ideal sleep pattern.
I invite you to do the same for yourself. You might surprise yourself and find that your ideal wake time is earlier (or later) than what your alarm is set at. Certainly, if you cannot wake up later, see if you can wake up earlier, and set that consistent wake time. This should free you and me from getting in our own head stressed about sleep, and instead just listen to our body.
One parting clarification – be reasonable. If you have a typical sleep schedule (i.e you’re not on third shift, or something like that), and you wake up at 3 am alert, and you’re not supposed to be up for at least another few hours, go back to sleep. However, if you are waking up at least by 4:30 am (earliest), or 5 am or later, and feel alert – just get up. Give it a try and see how you feel!
To your health and wellbeing,
Lead Health Coach, Dan Tribley
EPIC Functional Medicine