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Oct. 2, 2021, 9:09 a.m. EDT

I chronically wake up at 4 a.m. and struggle to go back to sleep, dreading my alarm: ‘This leads to miserable days.’ How can I sleep better?

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Brienne Walsh

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Question: I’ve suffered from insomnia my whole life, but as an adult, I’ve been able to alleviate some of the symptoms by following a strict sleep schedule, keeping my phone in the kitchen at night and reading before bed. Even still, every few weeks, I have a period of 10 days or so when I wake up between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. and stay up for an hour or two before falling into an uncomfortable sleep right before my alarm goes off at 6:15 a.m. This leads to miserable days, and often, a spate of depression. What can I do to sleep better?  (Are you having trouble sleeping too? Here are the 20 best-selling sleep products — from weighted blankets to noise machines — in the MarketWatch Shop . Use code MARKETSLEEP15 for 15% off everything.)

Answer: You’re not alone. According to sleep researcher Rebecca Robbins, the co-author of Sleep for Success! and a sleep expert to Oura , you’re one of an estimated 50 to 70 million Americans who chronically suffer from a sleep disorder, whether it be trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or getting enough sleep to keep them in good health. “Sleep is so deeply psychological,” Dr. Robbins says. “To overcome sleep issues, it can take time.”

Though there may be many reasons why insomnia develops at the outset — for example, loud noises outside of your bedroom, or an event like a new job that causes unusual stress — it quickly becomes behavioral. In essence, you train your body to wake up at the same time every night even if it’s detrimental to your health.

But there are solutions: First up, don’t force yourself to stay in bed if you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night, says Dr. Robbins. “What you’re doing if you stay in bed is training your brain to look at your mattress as a place where you’re stressed and have insomnia,” she says. Instead, get up and try going to the bathroom first, which can often be a very quick fix. “Tell yourself, I got this,” she says. “And then get back in bed.” (Are you having trouble sleeping too? Here are the 20 best-selling sleep products — from weighted blankets to noise machines — in the MarketWatch Shop . Use code MARKETSLEEP15 for 15% off everything.)If you don’t fall back asleep right away — Dr. Robbins says to give yourself 15 minutes — get out of bed again and try to do something that relaxes your body. For example, some gentle yoga or a breathing exercise. Wait until you feel tired to get back in bed. “If you’re not [tired], then all you’re going to do is toss and turn and start to rewire the brain to look at your bed as a place where stressful things happen as opposed to sleep,” she says.  

Sometimes doing all of this won’t work, and that’s OK. But remember this: When you’re exhausted, it can be really difficult to make it through the day without napping — or allowing yourself the luxury of sleeping in. Both wreak havoc on your body if you’re suffering from insomnia, Dr. Robbins says. Sleeping late messes up your circadian rhythm and makes it hard to stay — and even fall — asleep. And napping alleviates what Dr. Robbins calls the “sleep pressure” phenomenon, which is the body building up sleepiness throughout the day. Until you alleviate your insomnia, Dr. Robbins notes, refrain from both activities — and build in some time in your schedule to be exhausted for a few days if you really want to tackle the issue.

Other triggers that could worsen insomnia include looking at bright lights, including your clock, which raises cortisol levels and increases stress. If you want to have a clock in your bedroom, Dr. Robbins recommends using one with an ambient or non-illuminating interface.  (Are you having trouble sleeping too? Here are the 20 best-selling sleep products — from weighted blankets to noise machines — in the MarketWatch Shop . Use code MARKETSLEEP15 for 15% off everything.)

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