One of the most common sleep problems I encounter in my clinic is waking in the early hours - usually between 2am and 4am - then finding it hard to get back to sleep.
In the long term, missing out on this vital stage of sleep can be debilitating and even lead to serious health problems. According to latest sleep science, this is an important time for the body to heal - and not just physically. In traditional Chinese and Indian medicine this is an important time for ultimate deep rest - the deepest rest you will get in a 24hr day. During this time we process emotions such as fear, anger, frustration and even sadness and grief.
I have patients who, because they have been missing out on this healing sleep phase, have even ended up with addiction problems using drugs and alcohol to help them not only to pass out but also to disconnect from overwhelming feelings.
Why do we wake at this time of the night? And how can we manage it?
Some medical doctors might label this as 'depression' but I find this an unhelpful label. So in the many years that I have been working with sleep issues and exploring with patients the reasons why you might be waking between 2am and 4am and here are some of them:
1. Creativity - Einstein's theory of relativity came to him in a dream during the early hours. Similarly Kekulé, the physical chemist, elucidated the structure of benzene in a dream that came to him during this time. Leonardo da Vinci often woke to spend these magical hours painting. My question to you is are you creative but not giving expression to your creativity?
2. Unfinished business - mundane tasks, overflowing inboxes, and too-long to-do lists can all cause early morning waking as the mind decides you've had enough sleep and it's time to wake up and get working.
4. Unprocessed emotions - If you're unhappy or worried about something this is the time when again, your brain might decide that working on your stress is more helpful than sleeping. The problem with this is that all around you is silent and still and your subconscious is in overdrive, problems magnify and can take on demonic proportions.
5. Spiritual connection - The ancient mystics believed that the early hours before sunrise held the magical connection with the spirit world and that this is the most potent time to connect with the spirit realm and God. Of course this depends on your spiritual and religious beliefs and whether you believe in the existence of a God or similar. Perhaps this is why in some religious faiths this is considered to be an important time to pray and meditate - nuns rising for Matins Laud, the first of the day's prayers and the first Moslem call to prayer just before dawn breaks. For some, early morning waking may even be a sign of spiritual awakening.
I hope that reading this may help you to discern the reason for your unhelpful sleep habit. We need our deep sleep. Especially in today's world where demands on our energy are relentless. Here are a few tips for breaking the cycle of early waking:
1. Make space in your waking hours for your creativity - write, paint, bake - so it doesn't spill over into this magical time for sleep.
2. Keep a pad and pen by your bed (I have a special bedside LED pen just for this purpose) so you can capture the inspiration when the muse strikes.
3. If you're waking because of 'inbox overwhelm' you may need to look at your time management habits and, at the very least, start writing lists before you leave work at the end of the day. In other words, establish control at the end of the day and before you get into bed.
4. Avoid checking the time when you wake during the night. Going into complex calculations of how much sleep you are or aren't going to get is never going to help you get back to sleep.
5. If you need to get up for the bathroom, do so but try to stay as sleepy as possible. Avoid putting lights on, checking the time or emails (never do this!). Before getting back into bed, stand rooted on the spot beside your bed, imagine roots growing from your feet, feel your feet on the ground and then...
6. Get into bed, enjoy the comfort and support of your bed, breathe deeply and think of all the small, positive things that happened in your day. Count your blessings (not sheep) and allow yourself to just let go and rest.
7. Make time for your inner life during the day. Practice meditation, mindfulness, journaling or simply reflection whenever you can. Put your devices away from time to time and you'd be surprised how much time you free up - and how much deeper you sleep.