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Why do I wake up in the middle of the night

Posted on | Last updated 12-09-2017

Many people wake up in the middle of the night, in fact for many it’s the norm. If those I have spoken to are anything to go by, few sleep all the way through - but shouldn’t we be able to?

When I deliver a seminar and ask for a show of hands a good 50-70% of the audience, sometimes more, put up their hand and say they wake during the night, and at this point my eyes light up.


Because I believe that if I can help these people sleep soundly through the night I can improve their well-being and overall performance by feeling fresher the next day. In short, I can have a profound impact on them.

It’s at this point I question why we wake up, is it that we need the toilet which everyone assumes is the reason?

It seems obvious, after all we have the feeling of needing the toilet, and many of us get out of bed and go. But it also stands to reason, let’s say you go to bed at 11pm and wake up at 3am, that’s 4 hours in bed, I think after 4 hours anyone is going to need the toilet, asleep or awake, that’s a long time and your bladder is going to be filling up all the time (depending on how much you’ve drunk of course).

Don’t get me wrong, needing the toilet might be a legitimate reason, and there is an easy way to find out, drink less than normal from 8pm onwards, or a few hours before you go to bed and see if it makes a difference. If it does, awesome, it’s a legit issue and has an easy fix.

Before I go into the more prominent reason I THINK this is I need to cover a few more simple reasons you could wake up during the night.

  1. Pain: You might have pain somewhere i.e. back pain and the sharp feeling of pain as you roll over wakes you up. Get to a physio or osteopath and try get on top of that problem if it’s keeping you awake at night.
  2. Heat: we all know we sleep worse when it’s hot, even more so if it’s humid. This is because your body struggles to drop into REM sleep if it’s too warm, so you actually get LESS deep sleep when it’s hot. The disturbed nature of your sleep cycle means that you are easier to wake up during the night.
  3. A kick: The Mrs. is awesome at bed time gymnastics, it’s lucky I’ve a super king bed and the kick rarely reaches me! Solution, suggest the spare room ;)
  4. Noise: The dog barks, something goes bang, a loud vehicle goes past. This should really only happen if you’re in your lighter phases of sleep, so if you spend more time in Stage 3 or REM sleep this should happen less (We go into a ton of depth on sleep stages in the sleep module on our Foundation Academy).

Also, if you’re someone with high levels of daily anxiety your body should be in a naturally higher state of fight or flight, anyway, and it will therefore be anticipating or listening out for problems. If the body is in a state of looking for stress, or always ready to fight stress head on, alert, it will find it in even the smallest of stimuli. So this will play into my theory…

We’ve too much anxiety and stress in our body and minds these days.

This is my theory, but from where?

Coaching 100s of people, appreciating the intricacies of how the human body works in a fight or flight state, and drawing some logical conclusions (careful, logic can be very un-logical, but let’s see where it takes us), and of course personal experience with my own sleep habits.

I’m a good listener, to you, and to myself. I believe that your body will tell you the problem if you are willing to listen and start to see patterns in behaviour or outcome. I sleep soundly when I am 100% content, happy, and essentially in a good place. The moment something is bothering me I wake during the night, without fail, like clockwork.

The reason I am writing this blog is that I have had this issue this week, something happened, it was nagging at me, and as a natural stress response my body was on a low level of alert and my mind was chewing over how to solve ‘the problem’. In lighter phases of sleep, combined with a noise, or feeling warm, or turning positon in bed I then wake up, then ‘viola!’, I’m now awake and my mind is on over-drive chewing through the problem.

I can tell this is the case because when I am in a good place and I wake during the night I literally fall back asleep within seconds, and it’s almost like I’ve not been awake, the body just drops back in to sleep and boom im getting Zzzzz’s again.

If something is on my mind I’ll be in monkey mind mode and might not get back to sleep again for 30-60 minutes as I chew over the problem. I’ll often mentally play out every simgle god damn way possible that an issue can be tackled until I almost get tired of thinking and that forces me to sleep, that or I manage to either accept or solve the issue, or think f**k it and I get up, get to work, and have a nap later that day. Being awake at least means I can do something to take my mind off the ‘problem’.

So far this has all been experience, anecdotal and gut feel led, is there any research to support my assumptions?

Yes and No. So this meta analysis shows that there is an effect from stress on our sleep, especially emotional stress, but the problem is it is still subjective, meaning we might be back to square one (for the geeks here I’d recommend a read, it’s a great research paper, but I don’t want to dwell on this, I want to stay objective and get practical).

This means that a stress might occur, one person might find it stressful, another might not, and we see this all the time. For example, someone gets a flat tyre on the road, person one’s reaction is:

OMG, I can’t believe it, I’m such an idiot, ah this is so stressful, this is going to make me late for work, and this is going to cost me lots of money, and I’m going to have to wait in the rain, ah this is so stressful, why me?

Person two might react:

Ah balls, flat tyre, dang, I reckon I could try change it myself, if not I’ll call the AA and get them to come out, and then I’ll ring work and tell them I’ll be late. Crap. But hey, it is what it is, nothing I can do about it apart from deal with it.

So, we’re all different. Shock horror.

What’s the solution? Is there one? Are stressed people always destined to be stressed?

Yes and no.

I personally believe it’s a choice, you might have the natural make up to be more highly strung through your life’s experiences and upbringing, or naturally worry about things more than others due to your individual genetically determined personality traits, but like most things you can always work with what you’ve got. If you choose a negative thought pattern as a natural sub-conscious choice, surely you can choose to consciously think an alternative way and over time that new way will become a sub-conscious thought process, too, leading to less stress and an overall relatively calmer outlook?

This is what we do with other habits right? We swap going home and sitting on the sofa to going to the gym or for a run when we get in, a simple habit swap that becomes the norm over time. We can do the same with thoughts right?

Ask the monk how he sleeps, I bet he says “like a baby”.

Why talk of a monk? Well we often perceive them as the most chilled out people on the earth, people that have practiced mindfulness and alternative perspectives on many of life’s musings and goings on.

So, if the monk can develop that mindset, can we, and thus can we sleep more soundly?

I’m going to argue my case for yes. Now this isn’t a instant fix, I believe this is something that will always be a work in progress for many people, and it might be something that takes a while to resolve or change, but it is worth it, surely a life of less stress is desired?

It is for me, even if it takes a few months of practice (like anything), to get myself there.

There are lots of ways to look at a more mindful approach to life, and to approach it in a calmer, less stressed way.

These are my top tips, and I hope this helps you sleep more soundly:

Are stressed people always destined to be stressed.

1. F*CK IT

So much in life just doesn’t really matter, we often give so much time and attention to the smallest of things, and stew over them for hours. Next time you catch yourself doing this can you simply stand back and say to yourself “does this REALLY matter, should I be giving this so much of my time and energy?”. The answer will quite often be no, and if it is, bin it, and start thinking about far more cool stuff, like how you’re going to crush your workout that evening, or what you’re going to cook for dinner, or that you can’t wait till you get home to walk your dog.

If you feel you struggle with this there is a great book called FUCK IT on Amazon, highly recommended.

Let’s say Fuck It more, it’s liberating.

2. Positive affirmations

So many of us have negative affirmations:

I’m fat, I’m not capable, I can’t do that, I am weak, they’re better than me, I’m not strong, I’m not fit, I’m not clever, I’m not good at that like they are.

Too many people have disempowering thought processes, and you can change it. Whether or not you believe it right there and then it doesn’t matter; it will be a learned habit over time. Think of the last motivational YouTube video you saw where the voice over was saying “I am strong, I am the one, I can do this, I will work harder than others, I will work to my strengths, I am capable, I am smart”.

We often watch this videos and go “yeah, awesome, I’m pumped”, then forget it and go back to our normal level of motivation and perceived level of capability. But what if you developed a mantra (aka an affirmation) that was like the above, but relevant to you, and repeated it EVERY DAY, MORNING AND NIGHT.

What do you think would happen? Who knows, but what harm would it do to try it, would take 30 seconds per day, and after a while it might stick, and you might beleive it, which means you would end up living it every day, after all our mind controls everything we do.

Ask the Rock how he thinks every day, I bet it’s not “I’m fat, I’m weak, I can’t do this, I can’t….”

Live in the Rocks mind, empowering thoughts are strong thoughts, and a strong and empowered mind will struggle to even let stress in.

3. Write a gratitude log and journal

This is something we’ve spoke about a lot on my podcast Ben Coomber Radio over the years, and 95% of people that try it benefit from it. Grab a note book and do this:

  1. Firstly, write your to do list for tomorrow, brain dump and get everything out of your head, release it and know it will get done as it’s on your to do list
  2. Write how you are feeling, and become at one with it. Leaving feelings in your head lets them wonder, and that’s when they are dangerous. Write them down, add context, expand on them, be honest, and I bet you come to some seriously rational and objective conclusions about how you feel, and solutions to help solve them, or at least contextualise them (you could also talk to your partner about them, not to moan or complain, but to simply talk it through and gain someone else’s perspective at it, going into that conversation looking to moan and complain to your partner is a negative approach to the situation, approach it positively, simply by seeking to share opinion on that emotion and help yourself see reason with that problem).
  3. Write down 5 things that you are grateful or appreciative for right there and then in your life. It could be anything, you appreciate your dog cause he makes you happy, that you exercised that day and it made you feel good, you love your house as it and keeps you safe and you’ve worked hard for it, literally ANYTHING. This process side steps negativity and puts your brain into a calm sense of focus by appreciating the good things in your life.

4. Deal with it

If something is pissing you off, deal with it, talk to the person, tell them how you feel, speak to your boss about your job, chat to your partner if it’s something at home, where possible tackle the problem head on. Yes this will potentially be very stressful short term, but it will be short lived and you’ll be back to a good place in no time. If you don’t, the stress of whatever situation it is will only amplify with time – best to get it out of the way.

Now please appreciate this isn’t an exhaustive list, and based on the comments from this blog I will write a part 2 to this thought process as I’ve a lot more to add, but this is enough for one day. For now we’ve breeched the subject. At this stage perhaps it’s a case that we simply need to be more mindful of stress, not that it’s there and we want to give it head space, but to come at it objectively, in a relaxed way, in an appreciative way, not to merely react to it - that merely ties you up into knots, leadig you to just spiral out of control with the monkeys running around in our head.

Is that stress actually stressful?

Could we say FUCK IT a bit more?

Are we practicing gratitude and being mindful of our thoughts and emotions?

Could we spare 10 minutes a day to write a journal and gratitude log?

Why? Because I want you to sleep soundly, I think it’s going to improve your health and well-being and enable you to get more out of life, and that is why I teach, write and aim to empower others.

Sleep is essential for being awesome, and I want you to have more of it, or at least better quality sleep. And I know that when something is on my mind, I’m part of the 3am wake up club.

To join the discussion and have you in my ears weekly, grab a listen to my podcast, it’s the UKs #1 rated, and it’s free, on Apple or Android, grab a listen.

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