What to do when you wake up in the middle of the night


Lauree Ostrofsky on real-life monstersLittle kids aren’t the only ones suffering from nightmares. I wonder sometimes if it’s scarier as an adult, because the things keeping me awake at 3 a.m. are more possible than any of the stuff I used to imagine.

The real-life monsters that haunt me: losing my income, losing a loved one, making someone mad, making the wrong decision, and being alone — forever.

Sound familiar? When real-life monsters haunt you, here’s what to remember:

1. “Everything feels worse in the middle of the night.”

That’s what my mom would say when I would whimper beneath the covers in the middle of the night, too scared to move. Hoping she could save me. The moment I heard her rustling across the hall, I would start to feel better.

It’s surprisingly helpful to speak to myself in that same tender voice when my mind is spiraling into worst-case scenarios.

The phrase that works for me is: “Things always feel scarier in the middle of the night. You know this. You’ve been here before.”

I do, and I have! The more I have this short conversation with myself, the faster it works. I often fall back asleep within ten minutes, trusting that come sunrise, things will all make more sense.

2. “This is totally normal.”

Another tactic that works well for me is the simple act of naming what’s happening. I learned this from Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance. Rather than tossing and turning and trying to figure out what to do about the latest monster, I name out loud the thought or feeling I’m having in the dark. I usually take a couple deep breaths with it and let out a long sigh.

No judgment or solution necessary. The short process wakes me up momentarily and allows me to let the thoughts go. Because that’s it — these are just thoughts that naturally arise all the time. We get to choose which ones we hold onto and when.

Maybe I’ll write more later on that one.

3. “I know what to do.”

In my previous column, I asked for your tips on how you stop yourself from overthinking — which is pretty much what your mind is doing when you wake up in the middle of the night. We Wafflers can end up with our covers in knots as we consider all potential outcomes.

Here is what you suggested for halting that familiar cycle:

  • Talk to people you trust.
  • Write things down so you can see your thoughts on paper.
  • Focus attention on your body, breathing, and sensation.
  • Exercise the thoughts away.
  • Take action.

While you might not want to jump out of bed to do all of these at 3 a.m., having solutions handy can give you the peace of mind you need to close your eyes again. Tomorrow morning, you’ll be ready.

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What real-life monsters haunt you in the middle of the night, and how do you ward them off? Share your answers with me, and anything else you’re waffling about, at my Unstuck email: lauree@unstuck.com.

Lauree Ostrofsky helps people love their lives, work, and each other more every day. She is chief hugger and coach at Simply Leap LLC and the author of SIMPLY LEAP: Seven Lessons on Facing Fear and Enjoying the Crap out of Your Life. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram at @SimplyLeap.

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