Skip to main content

07 Oct, 2022

How To Get Back To Sleep When You're Restless

We speak to our sleep expert Rob Hobson about what practices we can adopt when struggling with broken, restless sleep.


How to get back to sleep

Trying to get off to sleep is one way people struggle. Another is waking up during the night and struggling to get back to sleep again. During this time, our thoughts can take over, and often issues can become more amplified, and the stress and anxiety of not being able to get back to sleep quickly compounds the matter further.

The first thing to try and think about is adopting an attitude of acceptance. Allowing yourself to be awake instead of becoming increasingly frustrated and anxious about the situation will make things easier.

Opinion on what to do when you wake up differs. I think you better get out of bed rather than lie there, allowing your thoughts to ruminate in your head.

Create a sleep ritual personal to you

There are three core pillars to sleeping well: Behaviour, Environment, and Diet, which can be given the acronym BED. Once you understand what your daily lifestyle looks like, it’s possible to develop a sleep ritual that is personal to you. This involves putting sleep hygiene habits in place, which you can adapt on a nightly basis and use to help you get back off to sleep again if you wake up.

Keep a sleep diary

You might want to keep a sleep diary to help you address the issues that are getting in the way of you sleeping well. For each day and night, write down how much you slept, then jot down what it was that disturbed your sleep (too much light or noise?) and any lifestyle factors for that day (how much coffee, what you ate, when you exercised, what made you stressed and anxious). This can help you to address some of the issues that may be causing you to wake up during the night.

Watch the light at night

Unhelpful behaviours include blue light. Any light can suppress melatonin secretion, so try to keep your bedroom dark by using black-out blinds or investing in a sleep mask. While any light can suppress the secretion of melatonin – the hormone that promotes sleepiness – blue light has the most significant adverse effect. This light is emitted from electrical equipment such as computers, mobile phones, notebooks, and TVs. Establish a digital detox before bed to avoid exposure to blue light.

Ideally, trying to avoid these gadgets when you’re trying to get back to sleep is advisable. However, reading with a kindle or watching a bit of TV on the laptop may be thought distracting and induce relaxation and sleepiness in some people. If you use these gadgets, keep the light on them low.

Try to relax the muscles to relieve tension.

Exercises to help relax tense muscles are helpful at night and can be done in bed. This simple 20- minute regime lets you focus your mind elsewhere to block out anxiety-driven thoughts. Make sure you are sitting comfortably or lying in a quiet place, hands resting by your side. Begin by breathing slowly and noticing your inhale and exhale while your abdomen rises and falls. Remember to keep inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth throughout.

Take a slow, deep breath as you tense and hold it for 5–10 seconds for each muscle group. Focus on the difference between tight and relaxed muscles. Don’t tense too hard and repeat twice for each muscle group.

Muscle groups (do each side separately where appropriate, e.g., legs and arms)

1. Foot: curl your toes downwards

2. Lower leg: pull toes towards you to tighten the calf muscle

3. Whole leg: squeeze thigh and pull toes towards you

4. Hand: clench your fist

5. Arm: curl forearm to shoulder and clench fist

6. Buttocks: tighten, drawing them together

7. Stomach: suck it in

8. Chest: Take a deep breath in to tighten

9. Neck and shoulders: raise shoulders to ears

10. Mouth: open wide to stretch the jaw

11. Eyes: squeeze them tightly shut

12. Forehead: raise eyebrows as far as they will go

Try breathing to relieve the physical symptoms of stress

There are many helpful breathing exercises you can do for relaxation before bedtime. The most important part of this process is holding your breath. This allows oxygen to fill your lungs and circulate around the body, producing a relaxing effect throughout the whole body.

Box breathing

1. Breathe, counting to four slowly. Feel the air enter your lungs.

2. Hold your breath for 4 seconds.

3. Slowly exhale through your mouth for 4 seconds.

4. Repeat steps 1 to 3 until you feel fully relaxed.

Create a sleep-inducing bedroom environment

You may want to consider your sleep environment, as this can influence your ability to get back to sleep once you have woken up during the night.

Whether it’s a ticking clock, cluttered shelves, disorganised wardrobes, heaps of dirty laundry, piles of work files or the standby lights on electrical equipment, it doesn’t take much for any of these things to become the focus of attention or even become something to obsess about when trying to fall back to sleep again. Even little things that may seem insignificant during the day can become a source of anxiety, such as a peeling bit of wallpaper or a crack in the wall. Try to keep a tidy room as mess causes stress, which can keep you awake and prevent you from relaxing.

Adopting good sleep hygiene habits is a valuable way to help you create a suitable environment for slumber and strategies that may help you get back to sleep again. Suppose your troubled sleep continues for an extended period. In that case, working with a psychologist trained in sleep can help you address the phycological issues preventing you from sleeping, which may be done using techniques such as cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).