Strategies to Get to Sleep When Life Is Keeping You Awake

Pile of white blankets on a bedWhen Susan was growing up, she had a series of nightmares that were so familiar she knew when they were coming. She was scared to go to sleep and tried to stay awake to avoid them, but she couldn’t quite do it.

Instead she would fall asleep, have a bad dream, wake up, and find herself inside another bad dream. True awakening sometimes was as impossible as true sleep. This torture continued as she got older and didn’t go away until she learned that she needed help, which she sought; in psychotherapy, she learned just how scared she really was.

“How will therapy cure my fears?” she thought. “The therapist won’t be there in my bedroom at 2 a.m. when I’m scared.”

It’s true, her therapist wasn’t around in the middle of the night to save her with his friendly voice and warm face, but telling her therapist about the dreams and other things, too, did make them go away, eventually. And spending time in therapy helped her feel less alone, so that when she was afraid, she felt that there was something, someone behind her, to help and defend her.

But what do you do when you wake up at 2 a.m., and again at 3 a.m. and 4 a.m., your bedroom is dark, and you feel scared, terrified, heart pounding? Maybe you’re afraid the bad people in your nightmares are real and they’ve come to get you. Maybe you’re just lost in the muddle of worry about all the things you didn’t do yesterday or that you did wrong or that you won’t be able to do right tomorrow.

You can start by breathing slowly and deliberately: deep inhales, long slow exhales. That calms down your nervous system. You can imagine that, breathing in, you’re taking in something protective and good; breathing out, you’re ridding yourself of pain. You can turn on the light and read, say the heck with sleep for this night. You can get up and drink some warm milk. In very rare instances you can visit a physician and seek out a prescription for anti-anxiety medication or a sleeping pill. These remedies can help some but shouldn’t be turned to too quickly or used for too long.

A lot of people automatically buy over-the-counter sleep aids or get prescriptions from their doctors. Most sleep aids are to be used for a limited span of time and can be helpful. But some people take them for years. This makes it harder and harder to get a good night’s sleep, because you need more and more medication as your body develops tolerance; eventually the medication stops working.

There are ways to make sleep come a bit more easily. Always get up and go to bed at the same time. Don’t watch stimulating movies or shows or even news right before you go to bed. Some people benefit from gentle yoga or a warm bath. Arrange your room so that it’s pleasant looking, well aired, right temperature. The bed is comfortable. The surroundings are neat and attractive. All this makes finding your night’s sleep and keeping it a bit easier.

Stay away from alcohol and coffee or other caffeinated drinks. They affect your ability to sleep, too. If you’re a compulsive worrier, you can cut down a bit by arranging things before you go to bed, so when you wake up you know what to wear, for example. You’ll be prepared, and feeling prepared will increase your self-confidence. Therapy will increase your self-confidence, too. Just as it may have taken several months or years to become an insomniac, it will take time to learn how to be a good sleeper.

While you’re working on how to relax and go to sleep, you may also be in therapy, so you can learn the identity of the monsters that are after you and slay some of those dragons or find out they’re really just tiny harmless lizards.

How do I know? I’ve had experience with sleeplessness of my own. Now, I boast that I can always fall asleep—I’m really good at it. It’s my best skill. Maybe that sounds silly, but not if you spent years without enough rest. And I’ve worked with plenty of people who can’t sleep.

Psychotherapy helped me and Susan and many others identify our fears and conquer them. Work with someone and find out what helps you feel comforted and comfortable, safe enough to get a good night’s sleep. And then do those things.

Simple advice? Yes. Easy to do? No. Worthwhile? Yes!

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Lynn Somerstein, PhD, NCPsyA, C-IAYT, therapist in New York City, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 16 comments
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  • jeremy rich

    jeremy rich

    April 16th, 2012 at 2:29 PM

    I have never thought of night fears being something that a grown adult would have to grapple with. My feelings have always been that this is something that children will have to work through. How do you make it to adulthood with any sanity left if your nighttime sleep has been interrupted for years by these sorts of irrational fears and bad dreams? And how could someone have gone this long before seeking help?

  • Carl

    Carl

    April 16th, 2012 at 4:02 PM

    I never have this problem, but instead, the opposite. I can barely stay awake most nights and it drives the wife crazy!

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    April 16th, 2012 at 5:34 PM

    Hi Jeremy- Sometimes people spend many sleepless years feeling terrified before they are able to face that they need help, that help is actually available, and that they should seek it out. It’s a tragedy.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    April 17th, 2012 at 4:39 AM

    Hi Carl-
    Are you sleeping too much, or just enough?

  • Trinity F

    Trinity F

    April 17th, 2012 at 4:41 AM

    Relaxation techniques have been so beneficial to me. Breathing exercises, etc have all helped me to begin getting the type of sleep that has alluded me for a very long time. I was so scared to have to take Rx sleep medication because I had this irrational fear that I would never wake up. I wanted to do something that I could do on my own and I could control. It took time to learn the habits that would work the best for me, and there are still some nights when I struggle, especially if I have had too much caffeine or get a little wound up before bed. But overall trying natural alternatives like this over drugs has worked the best for me. I would certainly recommend that you at least give this a try before resorting to pharnacological methods.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    April 17th, 2012 at 1:49 PM

    Trinity, thanks so much for your lovely reply. I can see that you know this territory very well, and you have taken the best care of yourself that can be! Good for you- you should be proud. You did your homework, found out your options and decided on what works best for you. Then you applied your findings and now you’re even telling others what kinds of things can help. You’re a generous person.

  • Suzanne

    Suzanne

    April 18th, 2012 at 12:58 PM

    Lynn, what I would like to know is how do you know when it is time to look beyond the medication and seek real help for the issue? I don’t necessarily FEEL like there is something there keeping me from sleeping, and yet there it is every night around 3am. Who would I go to to look into something like this because honestly I have chalked it up to my hormones being out of whack or something like that with getting older, but I am curious if there could be more there. I would love to hear your thoughts and perhaps which direction I should pursue first. Thanks for any help or advice that you may have.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    April 18th, 2012 at 2:21 PM

    Hi Suzanne-
    Thanks very much for asking this excellent question.
    I think it’s best, first of all, to visit your MD and rule out any physical causes.
    Meanwhile, look closely at your lifestyle and track food intake, exercise, etc. I don’t know if you keep a diary, but this might be a good time to start.
    Ask yourself- what are your first thoughts when you wake up at 3:00AM? And, what are your dreams like lately? What else was happening in your life when this waking behavior started?
    This would be a good time to consider seeing a counselor or psychotherapist. Understanding yourself is always worthwhile.

  • Sal

    Sal

    April 19th, 2012 at 12:10 AM

    I believe it is the comfort and support that matters most.Waking up in the middle of the night with all that going on in your mind really can be overwhelming.If you are with your partner such things can be handled better with your partner’s support.At least you will not find yourself alone.

    And thank you for all the tips from the author.I am sure it will be helpful to a lot of people out there.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    April 19th, 2012 at 7:19 AM

    Hi Sal-
    The buddy system works great. ;>).
    Very good point.
    Take care, and thanks for writing in.
    Lynn

  • Treisha Marle

    Treisha Marle

    June 20th, 2012 at 11:07 PM

    Having insomnia is the worst feeling ever. You’re so tired and you want to sleep but can’t. I used to have insomnia too. I was just lucky enough that it went away on it’s own. I suffered for years with sleepless nights almost crying every night to the point that I even wished I could cry myself to sleep. Unfortunately, I still couldn’t. I’m not really sure how it went away. I’m just glad it did. Finally.

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    June 21st, 2012 at 7:10 PM

    Hi Triesha-
    I’m glad that it finally went away, thank goodness.
    Take care, and thanks for telling about your experience.

  • Erin Ayscue

    Erin Ayscue

    January 25th, 2013 at 9:33 PM

    What about nightmares in children? I’ve had nightmares and night terrors since I was tiny – my mom says she can’t remember a time I haven’t had them, and I’m 46 now. However, my five and a half year old suffers from them, too. She was born with heterotaxy, including heart defects, polysplenia, etc. She’s had three heart surgeries, and numerous other procedures and hospital admits. I know that’s enough to cause them. She also suffers with SPD, ADHD, AD, and OCD. She is NOT on meds due to her heart issues. It seems, though, that lately she suffers from nightmares, enough that she refuses to go into her room anymore due to monsters in it. Any suggestions for dealing with this with children?

  • Lynn Somerstein

    Lynn Somerstein

    January 26th, 2013 at 5:43 AM

    Erin, how painful for you both. Night terrors–I know how awful it is to be afraid to go to sleep.
    For your daughter: Does she refuse to go into her room if you stay with her for a while? I know how hard it can be to do that.
    For yourself: your stress levels can only be sky high. It is possible to find time for yourself, to do something calming, be part of a support group, relax in some way?
    Please take care,
    Lynn

  • susan m.

    susan m.

    April 10th, 2016 at 10:27 AM

    Is anyone familiar with night terrors it’s worse than nightmares and I’m afraid they’re going to occur again as I’m going through tremendous anxiety and Trauma

  • Lynn

    Lynn

    April 10th, 2016 at 1:12 PM

    Night terrors are excruciating. You would be wise to consult a specialist well versed in helping people with PTSD and night terrors.

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