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What to do when you’re awake at 3 a.m.

Maintenance insomnia, or difficulty staying asleep, is distressingly common, impacting our quality of life and cognitive abilities. But these three techniques can help us fall and stay asleep.

You wake up. It’s 3 a.m.—again! Why always 3 a.m.? You get up and use the bathroom—maybe that’s why?! You go back to bed. You toss and turn. Thoughts flood your brain—issues at work, challenges in your relationships, the myriad of seemingly insoluble political problems in the world. 3 a.m. becomes 4 a.m. 4 a.m. becomes 5 a.m. 5 a.m. almost becomes 6 a.m. before you finally drop off to sleep. Then, the alarm!

You get up—shattered—after hitting snooze a couple times. You’re now running late and relying on caffeine to get you through the day.

Does this sound familiar? For several years, that was my life—the only difference being that I began to get up at 3 a.m. to start working! The upside was that I “got stuff done.” In fact, I completed the majority of an Executive Master’s Programme at INSEAD between 3-6 a.m.

The downsides? Almost too numerous to mention: Falling asleep in meetings that I was supposed to be chairing, snatching naps in the car and on my office’s couch, a deterioration in my relationships with family and friends. Someone who is typically too tired to do anything—including to listen and to laugh—is not much fun to be with.

Some 100 million Americans are still looking for a consistent, good night’s sleep, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s annual American Time Use Survey. The rest of the world, and especially the business world, is similarly exhausted. A McKinsey study of 196 business leaders found two-thirds were dissatisfied with the amount of sleep they get and 55 percent were unhappy with its quality.

So why did I—and so many other people—experience the 3 a.m. syndrome? There are two types of insomnia. Sleep onset insomnia is a difficulty in falling asleep. Maintenance insomnia, which kept me up from 3-6 a.m., is a difficulty in staying asleep.

The downsides? Almost too numerous to mention: Falling asleep in meetings that I was supposed to be chairing, snatching naps in the car and on my office’s couch, a deterioration in my relationships with family and friends.

There are several potential causes. The need to use the bathroom is perhaps the most commonly talked about, especially in adults over the age of 50 as our bladders gradually weaken. Other reasons may include that 3 a.m. coincides with the end of a 90-minute sleep cycle for those going to sleep around 9 p.m., 10:30 p.m., or Midnight.

So, what can you do about it? Here are three things to help you fall back asleep when you wake in the middle of the night, though they are applicable too whether it’s 3 a.m., 10 p.m. or even 12 noon:

  • Read—for fun! Pick something you are personally interested in, and nothing to do with work. I once read an entire 500-page biography about PG Woodhouse between 3-4 a.m. over a few weeks. It was a fascinating book I would never have made time to read otherwise, and it also helped me get back to sleep. Reading paper—or perhaps a kindle—is key. No tablets, smartphones or laptops.
  • Body scanning. This mindfulness technique involves moving your awareness into your body and noticing emotions, physical sensations or urges that exist. Start with your toes, and slowly scan through your body until you reach the top of your head, stopping and bringing your awareness to each area for 10-30 seconds. Take this opportunity to notice whatever you feel, then thank that part of the body for what it contributes to your overall functioning on a daily basis.
  • An Epsom salt bath. Studies show increased magnesium levels associated with bathing in Epsom salts, known scientifically as hydrated magnesium sulphate, can aid sleep. Magnesium is best absorbed through the skin and is a crucial element for us yet one which our bodies don’t produce. As part of the hundreds of enzymes in the body, magnesium plays a role in the deactivation of adrenalin. A shortage of magnesium in the body is common, and whilst supplements can be taken orally, why not treat yourself to an Epsom salt bath to relax before bedtime?

My experience addressing sleep issues—which will be outlined in more detail in my forthcoming book, Positive Sleep—suggests some effort is required in falling back asleep when you wake at 3 a.m. Whether reading an interesting book, doing a body scan or taking a relaxing Epsom salt bath, it’s up to you to take these steps.

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