What To Do When You’re Wide Awake at 5 A.M.

wide awake at 5 a.m.

This morning I woke up, wide awake at 5:33 a.m. It made me think of a client who expressed concern about her early waking. Much like her, I wondered: “should I try to go back to sleep?”

To me, the answer was clear. I got up.

But if you’re wide awake at 5 a.m. and uncertain about what you should do, here are a few strategies to help you.

Strategy 1: Understand When Its Normal

It’s currently the end of May in New England. The weather has moved from cold and damp to full-blown summer, seemingly overnight. When I first woke, wide awake at 5 a.m., I could see the bright sunshine at the edges of my bedroom curtains. I could hear birds chirping. I knew I had gone to bed earlier than usual the night before (around 9 p.m.), because of a particularly taxing day. I closed my eyes to see whether sleep would return, but my stomach growled with anticipation of breakfast. This is how I knew to get up.

Being clock-driven is sometimes necessary, and often a good thing. However, nature always wins. Don’t expect your mind-body to sleep until 7 a.m. simply because you have this idea that you should. We can convince ourselves something is wrong when it’s right, just as easily as we can tell ourselves something is right when it’s clearly wrong.

Strategy 2: Go Back to Sleep

You may push back on this: I know I did before I became an adult sleep coach.

If you wake, wide awake at 5 a.m., can you not get in your head about it? Sleep stages vary from light to deep, and it’s not unusual to wake up briefly during the night and even in the early morning. If you have to get up to use the bathroom, go ahead. But then get back into bed, roll over, close your eyes, and go back to sleep.

The more you make it a “thing,” the more your mind gets involved and stimulated, and you’ll be less likely to be able to fall back to sleep.

Strategy 3: Get Up and Make Good Choices

Let’s say that unlike my example above, you didn’t go to sleep super early. It’s not spring-summer, and there’s not a clear, natural reason for an early waking. You earnestly did strategy 2, and you still can’t fall back to sleep.

Then get up. Move on with your day and make choices that prioritize your sleep tonight. Cut yourself a little extra slack, but don’t nap. Go to bed when you’re tired, even if you think that’s early. Don’t buy into the “going to bed early is ‘old’ or ‘lame’ BS.” It’s more like, “I’m going to bed early because I’m wise and attuned to my mind-body, and I’m going to wake feeling refreshed in the morning!”

Strategy 4: Complain and Get Upset

Are you surprised by my inclusion of this strategy? Obviously you know this doesn’t help. But I want to remind you that it does count as a choice.

Strategy 5: Get Professional Sleep Help

If you’re wide awake at 5 a.m., you may be losing out on REM sleep, which increases closer to your waking time. It may be one reason why you feel tired during the day.

If you’re consistently waking too early no matter what you do, consider getting some professional help. You may need treatment for a medical condition such as sleep apnea, to change some daytime lifestyle habits, to reframe your thinking about sleep, or all three!

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