And no, getting a louder alarm is not the answer.

Morgan Noll
Jan 04, 2021 @ 5:27 pm
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I’ve always considered myself someone who’s good at sleeping. I can usually fall asleep within 10 minutes of my head hitting the pillow, and I often stay asleep throughout the night, despite the constant busy street noise outside my New York apartment window. What I’m not good at, however, is waking and staying up in the morning.

No matter how determined I am to get a head start on my day, in the morning, my brain always seems more determined to get back to sleep. Sometimes, my half-conscious, half-dreaming mind will even make me think I have to get back to something important in my dreams—like a special work meeting. (The irony, of course, is that doing so only delays my IRL workday.) This groggy morning affliction has become an everyday issue for me, so I consulted sleep experts for advice to better understand why it's so hard to wake up and what I can do to change it.

Why do I wake up tired?

What I learned is that there are multiple potential reasons for why I have trouble waking up—and none of them are as simple as just being bad at mornings (the conclusion I'd come to on my own). In fact, mornings aren't necessarily the problem; it's every other time of day and night that can make the biggest difference in how I, and many others who have trouble getting out of bed, feel when waking up. Eric Nofzinger, M.D., a sleep researcher and founder and chief medical officer of Ebb Therapeutics, describes sleep as "a process of restoration." If our sleep at night isn't sufficiently restorative—which could mean we're not getting in our seven to eight hours, we're waking up a lot in the night, or we're not sleeping deeply enough—we'll feel the effects of that in the morning.

One of the main reasons we might not be getting restorative sleep is stress and anxiety—and the ways in which we deal with it throughout the day. Especially right now, with the pandemic dragging on, removing stress and anxiety from our lives is not easy—but there are ways to work through these emotions and create better nighttime routines so that we aren't going to bed with so much racing around in our minds.

Of course, there are many other potential factors for why you may be struggling to wake up in the morning, including sleep disorders and depression, so it's important to consult a doctor if you think something else may be going on. But if you're simply looking to improve your sleep and help yourself wake up in the morning, keep reading for more expert advice.

How to wake yourself up:

1. Confront your stress and anxiety during the day.

When we keep busy all day long, it's easy to compartmentalize our worries into the "save for later" tab in our brains. While that might help us focus on other things during the day, those thoughts often come rushing out of hiding right when we're trying to fall asleep at night. "In order to get into a deep sleep, your mind kind of has to be free of worries and cares," Dr. Nofzinger says. "When we go to bed at night, we have to feel safe, and we have to feel secure."

To avoid going to bed with such a busy and heavy mind, Dr. Nofzinger says it's important to try to deal with and confront our stressors throughout the day. This could look like going to therapy, journaling, talking to a friend, or even just crying it out when you need to.

One specific method that Kelly O'Brien—a board-certified health and wellness coach at Proper—recommends is called a "brain dump," a technique used in cognitive behavioral therapy. The Four Square Brain Dump, as detailed on PsychCentral, involves dividing a page into four sections—"Thoughts," "To Do," "Gratitude," and "Top Three Priorities"—and filling out each section accordingly. This process can help you manage, organize, and acknowledge your thoughts so they don't feel as overwhelming in your mind.

how to wake yourself up
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2. Create a wind-down routine.

In addition to working through your emotions throughout the day, O'Brien recommends creating a specific bedtime routine. Intentionally engaging in non-activating and non-stimulating behavior before bed will help support a healthy circadian rhythm and prepare both your mind and your body for sleep. "When we send cues to the brain and the body that we're moving out of doing things during the day and into this more calm state of being at night, that's when rest and sleep find us most readily," O'Brien explains.

This wind-down routine can look different for everyone, but it should focus on things that make you feel relaxed. This may mean switching out of your daytime clothes and into your pajamas, lighting candles, doing a calming yoga session, reading, or even masturbating.

Body temperature is also a specific cue that has been shown to affect the body's readiness for sleep. "Our body temperature has a normal circadian rhythm," Dr. Nofzinger explains. "It's high during the daytime and low in the middle of the night, and that transition occurs in that 30 minutes to an hour before going to bed at night, so it's very important to allow that to happen by not being engaged in stimulating activities." Somewhat counterintuitively, taking a hot shower or bath a couple of hours before bed can actually support this natural rhythm, because while your body temperature will rise, it will steeply decline once you step out of the shower or bath, helping your body get to that perfect bedtime temperature. According to a National Sleep Foundation poll, approximately 65 degrees Fahrenheit is the perfect temperature for sleeping, so you can also adjust your thermostat before bed to get the environment just right.

3. Keep a consistent bedtime.

Bedtimes aren't just for young children and elderly adults. One way to support your circadian rhythm is to try to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. If you keep these times consistent, your body will naturally start to wake itself up without as much resistance in the morning.

For many of us, going to bed at the same time each night is much easier said than done, but simply having a specific bedtime in mind can help us establish consistency in our routine and feel less rushed when going to sleep. For example, if you want to be in bed by 10 or 11 p.m., you can begin working on your wind-down routine at 9 p.m., starting with things like your nighttime skincare regimen or reading in bed for an hour.

4. Put your phone away.

Along with establishing a consistent bedtime, both Dr. Nofzinger and O'Brien (and pretty much any sleep expert you ask) recommends putting your phone and other technology away about 30 minutes to an hour ahead of that time. Research has shown that the blue light emitted from phones, laptops, and many other devices can interfere with our brain's ability to sleep at night, keeping it in an activated state.

It's even more than just the light, however. O'Brain explains that using devices before bed hurts our sleep schedule because our brain associates our devices with activation. "We use them for work, and we're always checking on, you know, do we have notifications? Is there a little red dot on one of our apps that tells us there's something that needs to be tended to?" she says. "So, using those devices leading up to when we want to fall asleep can confuse the brain a little bit again. It's like, 'Hey, am I supposed to be powering down? Or am I supposed to be engaged and ready to dive into answering an email or a text?'"

5. Remember that grogginess is completely normal.

While working on some of the behaviors listed above can certainly help you get better sleep and make it easier to wake up in the morning, it's important to understand that a certain amount of grogginess is completely normal. "Brain imaging studies have shown that it takes probably five to 15 minutes in order for the brain to get fully back in gear," Dr. Nofzinger explains. "For example, even after we've awakened from a night of sleep, the prefrontal cortex is still at a fairly low level of activity, so that feeling one has of drowsiness on awakening or not quite being fully alert, not really being focused—there is a physiological basis for that."

Because of the drowsiness upon awakening, Dr. Nofzinger says many people think they should go back to sleep to get more rest, but this only disrupts the circadian rhythm more. So just be patient with yourself in the morning and allow your mind and body time to get back into the swing of things. "Just to be clear, we have these commercials that show people bounding out of bed with rainbows and butterflies in the morning, and that's pretty unrealistic," O'Brien says. So, go easy on yourself—no one actually wakes up feeling amazing right off the bat.

6. Get yourself a real—and gentle—alarm clock.

If you've been looking for a fast-track solution to waking up in the morning, you may have considered getting an intense alarm clock—like one that moves across the room or sounds like it's been certified for the military—to force yourself awake. However, this is not the answer. While an aggressive alarm may work to jolt you awake and help you get out of bed, O'Brien explains that it can end up backfiring. "Your brain is going to say, 'I don't like waking up in the morning because I get this shock or this jolt.' So it's kind of creating this natural aversion and hyperarousal around sleep and potentially affects overall the quality of sleep," she says.

Instead, look for something more traditional and gentle—while still being enough to wake you—that will allow you to have a more gradual transition into a wakeful state. O'Brien also recommends getting an actual alarm, not just your phone app, in order to create even more separation from your device and your sleep routines.

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7. Create a wind-up routine.

Once you've worked to improve your nighttime routine, you can establish somewhat of a wind-up routine, which can help awaken your body in a healthy way. Dr. Nofzinger recommends first turning on the lights and opening up your curtains, going for a walk or run, and engaging in some kind of social stimulation—whether that's talking to roommates or family at home or sending a "good morning" text—to signal to your brain that it's time to be active.

All of these recommendations are not only helpful for getting better at sleeping and waking up in the morning, they're also beneficial for overall physical and mental health. So if you want to work on being more kind to your mind and body, this is a great way to practice.