Waking up too early?

Your Question: I seem to have developed an internal alarm clock that wakes me up at 4 o’clock in the morning. It’s really starting to negatively affect my life. Is there any way that I can change this? I’ve tried every single trick in my book to sleep but they don’t work once I wake up.

The too-early internal alarm clock is often the byproduct of stress. Heightened levels of adrenaline and cortisol make it more difficult for your body to stay asleep as you get to the shallow end of the sleep cycle.

The fact that you’re writing this right at the START of the semester (rather than at the end, when people are likely to be way more stressed) could mean that missing the routine of the semester messed up your biological clock. If that’s the case, then your sleep should sort itself out now that it has a routine to tell it what to do.

It sounds like there’s really two things you need to work on: (1) falling back asleep when you wake up too early and (2) not waking up too early in the first place.

First, when you wake up at 4am, you’re almost certainly not fully rested, so it WANTS to go back to sleep. The worst thing you can do is go, “CRAP I’M AWAKE ALREADY!” and get frustrated.

The best thing you can do is to be calm and relaxed so you don’t knock yourself out of the sleepy zone, and then allow yourself to fall back asleep. Waking up doesn’t actually disrupt the quality of your asleep until you stay awake for longer than about 30 minutes, so there’s no need to panic.

So when you wake up, just notice that you’re awake and welcome this opportunity to practice falling asleep. Breathe slowly and deeply, paying close attention to your breathing. The breathing itself will relax you, and paying attention to your breath means you’re NOT paying attention to stuff that worries you. Your mind will wander – that’s normal and natural – so you’re job is to notice that your mind wandered, tell yourself “I can think about that another time,” and gently return your attention to your breath. This is called “mindfulness,” paying attention to what your brain is paying attention to.

Or: As you’re lying there, think about what it feels like to be really sleepy. What kinds of things does your body do? Do your eyelids feel heavy? Do your muscles feel warm and relaxed? Does your face sort of droop and sag? If you were sitting in class and trying NOT to fall asleep, what kinds of things would you be fighting. Try to reproduce those things you would be fighting. You’d be surprised how well this works.

Or: Imagine yourself in the most relaxing and peaceful place you’ve ever been. It might be a sandy beach or a forest or your bed at home or anywhere. Really notice all the beautiful, comforting things about this place, and notice how comfortable and peaceful you feel there. Heck, even if you don’t fall asleep, you’ll still feel good!

If it’s been half an hour and you still can’t get to sleep, what you need to do is transition your brain out of wakeful, activated state to the calm, quiet pre-sleep state. There are lots of things that can help with this:

  • Get up and do something relaxing like reading or listening to music. Avoid stuff that involves bright light (TV, computer) or work.
  • Take a very warm shower, which will artificially raise your core body temperature. As your temp drops, your body will be triggered to sleep.
  • If you’re worried about things you need to do tomorrow/later today, get up and write a list. Writing things down means the piece of paper can hold your to-list, so your brain doesn’t have to.
  • Practice mindfulness meditation, so you learn how to shut off your brain (see breathing exercise above).

Again, the WORST thing you can do it get frustrated about not being asleep. Waking up is not in itself a problem; it’s STAYING awake that becomes a problem, and a primary cause of staying awake is getting frustrated about the fact that you’re awake. Which is an annoying catch-22, but at least it’s simple to fix!

As for preventing the too-early wake up, the approach is to keep everything else about your sleep routine consistent. Don’t get out of bed until the time when you WANT your internal alarm to go off. This helps teach your body when it’s SUPPOSED to wake up. Keep your bedtime the same. For now, avoid napping. Usually napping is excellent, but until you get your sleep at night on track, it’s better to save sleep for nighttime.

Physical activity before noon often helps to stabilize your body clock, and eating meals at regular times helps too (at least this one will be pretty easy).

If this keeps going for more than a month and none of the above helps, check in with health services. Let them know everything you’ve tried. There might be a medical issue that you haven’t noticed. Waking up too early is actually a pretty common sleep problem among college students, and it’s generally very responsive to the behavioral approach I’ve described here. But occasionally medical intervention is necessary.

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