What happens when you wake up before the alarm goes off? Advice from three sleep experts

Many people dread the chirping of an alarm clock, signaling the start of a busy workday. Others wish they weren’t already awake and that the sound really woke them up.

Waking up minutes or even hours before the alarm goes off isn’t a new phenomenon, sleep experts tell CNN, but it can cause incredible discomfort. The added stressors of the pandemic have exacerbated our collective struggles over sleep.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than a third of Americans sleep fewer hours per night than the minimum recommendation of seven hours. [por cá, 46% dos portugueses com idade igual ou superior a 25 anos dormiam menos de seis horas por dia em 2018]. According to the US National Institutes of Health, studies from around the world show that 10-30% of the population suffers from insomnia, defined as constant difficulty falling asleep and the inability to return to sleep after being went to bed.

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According to a 2009 study by the Center for Sleep Epidemiology Research at Stanford and other universities, those who suffer from insomnia may have a combination of “night awakenings” and “morning awakenings.” The study concludes that some people may experience early awakenings without other symptoms of insomnia, such as “difficulty falling asleep”, “nocturnal awakenings” and “unrestorative sleep”, i.e. sleep that is not substantial even with the recommended hours.

“There’s a myth that insomnia is just having trouble falling asleep,” says sleep specialist Rebecca Robbins, an instructor in the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School. “A common complaint is excessive sleepiness and waking up very restless.”

While treatments for insomnia include cognitive behavioral therapy and medication, other daily tips can impact morning waking. An acute sleep disorder may be at play in a person who does not suffer from chronic insomnia but wakes up early.

“Sleep is an artifact of our waking lives,” says Robbins. “If we experience difficulties, trauma or something disturbing that happens … these events carry on far into our sleep.”

A constant awakening before this daily sound is associated with immense frustration at not falling asleep. Stress can make you feel isolated and consumed, creating more priority than the problem of falling asleep at the onset of sleep.

“You start ruminating about it, and then you start doing things that make the insomnia worse,” says Rajkumar Dasgupta, associate professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “Don’t start saying to yourself… ‘I’m going to make myself stay in bed until I fall asleep’.”

So what can you do?

Don’t look at your watch or your phone

If you wake up suddenly – in what seems like the early hours of the morning – resist checking the clock. Knowing that it’s 3 a.m. when you set the alarm for 7 a.m. can lead to increased stress on the hours of sleep you were hoping to achieve.

“Anxiety and frustration increase… Watching the clock becomes a habit, and this habitual response of frustration and anxiety also causes a stress response in the body,” says sleep expert Wendy Troxel, scientist principal in behavior at Rand Corp.

According to experts, checking the clock when you wake up early can trigger stress and make it difficult to get back to sleep.

When stress takes over, cortisol levels rise and the body becomes alert. This process is counterproductive to maintaining drowsiness; the brain becomes hyperactive.

“We look at the clock. It’s 3 a.m. sharp, and immediately the tension can make you cringe. You think about all the demands…how awful it will be if you’re sleep deprived,” says Troxel . “All of this mental processing and restlessness is contrary to the sleep state. It makes a person more alert and excited…instead of sending the signal to the brain that it’s okay to be adrift.”

If the alarm is on your phone, checking your watch can be an even bigger trigger. Consider getting an alarm that isn’t tied to your phone.

“Our phone is the strongest signal for our waking lives,” says Troxel. “You’re exposed to light from your phone, which can directly boost your circadian signal to be alert. The content we consume on our phones can be very stimulating, whether you’re browsing social media or reading. ” . Everyone can stimulate emotional states that are more activating than relaxing.”

get out of bed

So, paradoxically, the experts say get out of bed. Yes, even at 3 am.

“Give up the thought of going back to sleep,” Troxel says. “When you do that, when you release the pressure that sleep isn’t as effective, sleep is more likely to come back.”

In a stimulus control technique, you can distract your brain with a mundane task to help bring back drowsiness faster than getting frustrated in bed. “As soon as that little voice hits, change the mood. Get out of bed,” Robbins says. “Try to reset the brain and keep the lights low.”

Mentally attributing bed to sleep helps people associate positive thoughts about sleep and their space. Leaving the bedroom when restlessness sets in can separate the frustration from the bed.

Whether it’s reading a book, knitting, or listening to soothing music (but not using a phone), it can positively distract the brain. As soon as drowsiness returns, go back to bed.

Record what works and what doesn’t

Dasgupta recommends keeping track of not only what time you went to bed and woke up on any given night, but also calming techniques, environmental factors — and even nutrition and exercise routines that seemed to help. to sleep that day.

“Perfect sleep is like a puzzle, and you need all the right pieces,” says Dasgupta. “People who suffer from insomnia miss some of these sleep hygiene measures.” When you make your recommendation, like muscle relaxation, that might not be what you need. Maybe the sound wasn’t the key element. Maybe you need your cover more.”

It also depends on our given circadian rhythm, or the 24-hour solar cycle in which the body lives and which alerts us when sleepiness sets in at night. If environmental factors change — such as commuting, work hours, or lighting — the body’s circadian rhythm can kick in, signaling an uncomfortable early awakening before the alarm goes off, Dasgupta says. In this case, changing the lighting in a particular room or getting alternate lighting can help.

Progressive muscle relaxation can work – start with the toes, squeeze the muscles together for three seconds and release. Breathe through this process. The 4-7-8 breathing exercise combined with muscle relaxation can be successful, says Dasgupta. Inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds and exhale for 8 seconds.

Others may find that yoga, meditation, or reading can help them when they wake up before the alarm goes off.

The key here is also getting out of bed.

The same techniques do not work for everyone, but the practice of various strategies that can affect sleep is fundamental, eventually building a well-following routine.

“Moving forward with big strides,” says Robbins. “That’s why we consciously use this ritual word before bed, because these are ideally strategies that you build into your routine. It’s your toolbox.”

If the problem persists beyond three times a week for three months, Robbins recommends talking to a sleep specialist. It may take more than just changing habits.

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