We’ve all been there. We wake up at 3 AM to go to the restroom or check on a child or a phone we forgot to silence. And then we try to get back to sleep. Sometimes we can. Many times we can’t.

Our ineptitude might boil down to the moment that we say to ourselves, “Oh no, I’m awake. I’ll never get back to sleep.”

It’s downhill from there: the lists of things not done, the relationship gone sour, the excitement of a new project just begun. Active and alert, our minds can’t shut off. Prophecy fulfilled.

The thought —” I’ll never get back to sleep “— is pivotal — and worth examining. It’s a habit and, lucky for us, habits can be changed. And it’s not just the thought. It’s the bodily responses triggered by that thought — short breaths, rapid heart rate, and tightening muscles.

Cognitive behavior therapists call what we say to ourselves in such situations “scripts.” We have learned them so well that we barely know we have them.

Learning a new script isn’t automatic and involves some effort as we need to develop alternative scenarios. Perhaps the effort is why people reach for a sleeping pill. But unlike a pill, a new scenario won’t have harmful side effects.

Further, learning new scenarios isn’t painful but the effort needs to be intentional and they need to be practiced so that they are available when we awaken.

What might work will depend on the sleeper, but the essence is that over time you retrain yourself to go back to sleep and create a new habit.

Here are some examples.

Scenario 1: You wake up to go to the bathroom. When climbing out of bed, imagine that your feet are landing on soft warm sand and that you are walking into warm water. Keep relaxing during your bathroom visit, telling yourself that you are very tired and want to float, say in gentle waves. Float back into bed. Keep floating until you go back to sleep.

Scenario 2: You wake up because you have heard a noise from your phone. When turning on your phone‘s silencer, try to avoid looking at the light. As you walk back to bed, imagine that you hear it raining outside and that it’s chilly. Snuggle down into the covers saying, “I am so tired and so happy to be warm. I can’t stay awake anymore.”

Scenario 3: You awaken but don’t need to get out of bed. Lie on your side and pull your knee up and cup it with your hands. Say to yourself, “I am going to put my knee to sleep first. My knee is so tired.” Take slow deep breaths. As you gently rub your knee, imagine your leg relaxing, first down to your toes and then up to your hips. If you are still awake, pull your other knee up and repeat the process. Keep putting different parts of your body to sleep.

At no time do you think, “I’m awake and I can’t get back to sleep.”

New scenarios need to be revised until you have one that works. And the script that kept you up before? Hopefully, it resides in the far recesses of your mind.


  • Diane Gillespie

    stories for getting back to sleep

    Diane Gillespie is Emerita Professor, Community Psychology, Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences School at the University of Washington Bothell. As an educational psychologist, she has written two academic books and numerous scholarly articles. Stories for Getting Back to Sleep is her first venture into self-help fiction. She cares deeply about social justice and volunteers for the nonprofit Tostan (Tostan.org). She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband and enjoys spending time with her son, daughter, and their families.