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A Psychiatrist’s Tip For Quickly Falling Back Asleep When You Wake Up At Night

7:00 a.m.: Our daughter comes into our room to wake us up. I leap out of bed, gleeful to greet the day.

7:01 a.m.: … Just kidding. My husband (thank goodness for him) often takes the morning shift. He rolls out of bed to get the breakfast process started while I remain in a half-wake/half-sleep/dead-to-the-world state for a little while longer.

Around 7:30 a.m.: I actually open my eyes and climb out of bed.

8:15 a.m.: I walk my daughter to school. I consider this to be my “circadian walk” (i.e., this is my opportunity to get morning sunshine, which starts the clock on the circadian rhythm). Since I wear glasses with blue light-blocking lenses, I make sure to pause at least once, take off my glasses, and look in the general direction of the sun for a few minutes (never staring directly at the sun). I think it’s important to get actual sun into the actual eyeballs as early as possible every day, without sunglasses or blue-light blocking lenses involved.

8:30 a.m. – sunset: The day happens. I try to build at least a brief workout into my days to ensure that I tire out my body, which helps with sleep (and every other aspect of human existence).

Sunset: The circadian rhythm is largely cued by light, and I believe the critical circadian cues are bright light in the morning (ideally sunrise, but let’s be realistic), the transitional light of sunset, and darkness after sunset. I try to experience the transition of light in the evening by looking out the window, taking in the sunset, and not keeping excessive overhead lights on.

After sunset: This is where the magic happens. In our modern environment, we’re surrounded by overhead lights, TV’s, laptops, phone screens, and ambient light pollution. One of these days I might move to an off-grid homestead and defenestrate my smartphone and raise chickens. Until then, I wear blue-blocking glasses from sunset until bedtime. This blocks blue spectrum light from getting into the eyes and suppressing melatonin release.

8 p.m.: I’m putting my daughter to sleep. In the dark room, reading bedtime stories and surrounded by white noise, it’s verrry tempting to drift off into a decadent nap alongside her. But whenever I do this, I inevitably wake up an hour later groggy and completely unable to fall back asleep for several hours. So now I work hard to stay awake through her bedtime process.

9:30 – 10:45 p.m.: Now, I’m finishing up work and life logistics, connecting with my partner, doing dishes, etc. I often find myself glancing in the direction of my phone and thinking: Hey, wouldn’t it be swell to sit here and take an innocent little peak at instagram or TikTok? After such a long day, I deserve some “me time.” But we all know how this story ends. You open up the phone and then descend down a doom-scrolling rabbit hole, coming up for air an hour later, bleary-eyed and overtired. So I’ve learned to think this instead: If I start scrolling now, I’ll go to bed too late and squander my energy for the entire next day. This is enough to convince me to not reach for my phone and to instead brush my teeth and head to bed.

10:30 p.m.: I take about 120mg of magnesium glycinate and take a shower.

10:45 p.m.: I enter my chilly (~67 degrees Fahrenheit) bedroom (the cold temperature helps cue tiredness in the evening) to read a paper book using an orange book light (while wearing blue-blocking glasses because I’m hardcore).

10:45 p.m. – 11 p.m. (depending on how good the book is): Lights out, bedtime.

2 a.m.: Inevitably, I have a wake-up around 2 a.m. I now realize this is something called “middle sleep,” which is a normal, physiologic wake-up between two symmetric blocks of sleep. I used to stress about it, thinking, oh no, I’m awake in the middle of the night, this is going to be a bad night of sleep, tomorrow is going to be a bad day. And it turns out, that narrative I was telling myself, by stirring up my stress response, became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now, instead, I reassure myself that this is just middle sleep. I use the bathroom, have a sip of water, and then rest with my eyes closed, trusting that I’ll fall back asleep momentarily. And I do.

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