Stylist's Sleep Diaries: why do I keep waking up at 2am?

“How can I break the cycle of sleep anxiety?” A sleep expert answers your questions

Posted by for Sleep

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 45-year-old administrator explains that her anxiety over not getting enough sleep is keeping her awake at night.

A little about me:

Age: 45

Occupation: administrator

Number of hours sleep you get each night: six to seven hours

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: at least eight

Any officially diagnosed sleep-related problems: not officially, no

Do you measure your sleep in some way (e.g. using your phone or wearable): yes, I use the Sleep Cycle app

How much water you drink on average per day: I try to have at least five glasses a day

How much exercise I do on average per week: I go running two or three times a week

Day 1

It’s not a normal Monday, as I am on a day’s annual leave. A good thing, too, as I sleep for around seven hours and struggle to get up as I still feel so tired. 

I have a cup of tea while the kids are getting ready for school. Once they’ve left, I go for a 6.5 mile run, and it leaves me feeling refreshed – not to mention ready to crack on with a few jobs round the house!

At 8.15pm, I switch on my lavender oil diffuser; it’s something I do every night as part of my bedtime ritual. In fact, since experiencing insomnia really badly a couple of years ago, I started introducing all kinds of supposed sleep aids at bedtime and now I’m scared to stop in case it all starts again. 

Healthy night sleep concept, pajamas, sleep mask, cup of lavender tea, aromas for better falling asleep, pillow - stock photo
Sleep Diaries: I use a lavender oil diffuser to help me sleep.

I sit down with a mug of Ovaltine and some cherries (both of which are also supposed to help with sleep). Then, at around 10pm, I take a zinc tablet and head of upstairs to bed, where I stick the TV on, spray my pillow with lavender spray, and set up my Sleep Cycle app. By the time I climb into bed, its around 10.15pm. 

I read my book for half an hour, and fall asleep quite quickly. 

Day 2

My alarm goes off at 6.45am, just as it does every weekday morning. According to Sleep Cycle, I only managed around six hours and 40 minutes of sleep last night.

It’s a busy day, and I get home from work at 4pm. I make a point of getting myself changed and heading out for a run almost straight away, so it’s out of the way before dinner at 6pm.

Once we’ve eaten, I sort the kids’ lunches, tidy up, and then go and relax in a hot bath. Afterwards, I fall back on my usual routine; diffuser on, mug of Ovaltine made. Then, I sit myself on the sofa in front of the TV for the rest of the evening. 

I feel really tired, but stay up to watch the Kate Garraway documentary. As soon as it’s over, I head up to bed at 10.15pm, and read for half an hour. It seems to take a little longer to get to sleep tonight, than usual, though.

Day 3

My body is aching today when I get out of bed at 6.15am; that’ll teach me for running two days on the trot! Again, my Sleep Cycle app tells me I managed just under seven hours of sleep.

I climb out of bed and into the shower, then start getting ready for work. As always, I have my breakfast before leaving the house; today, it’s porridge topped with berries. 

Oatmeal porridge with berries and honey on wooden table.
Sleep Diaries: I take a moment away from my desk to have breakfast with my boyfriend.

When I get home from work, I sit down to dinner and then get everything ready for the next day

I have my usual mug of Ovaltine (with a side of cherries) at 8pm, take my zinc tablet, and head up to bed to read my book for a while. My light is switched off by 10.30pm as I’m feeling really tired tonight, and I fall asleep quickly. 

I wake up at 2.30am for the toilet, but luckily get back to sleep quite quickly afterwards.

Day 4

My alarm goes off at 6.15am as normal, but I really struggle to get out of bed today (again, Sleep Cycle says I’ve clocked up less than seven hours sleep). 

It’s another busy day at work, and I clearly don’t drink enough water as I have a banging headache come the end of the day. So, when I get home at 4pm, I immediately drink two huge glasses of water (wow, I needed that!).

After I’ve hydrated myself to the max, I treat myself to cup of tea, biscuit and a sit down, before hopping up again to get dinner sorted. 

Once we’ve eaten, I sit down to watch the soaps, but still make it to bed at my usual time of 10pm. The TV is on in the background while I read my book, and I switch the light off at 10.45pm. And, while I get to sleep quite quickly, it’s a bit of a restless night.

Day 5

It’s my day off, but my alarm still rings out at 6.15am as I have to wake the kids up for school (they’re teenagers, and so have a tendency to fall back to sleep!). 

My Sleep Cycle app tells me I only slept for six hours and 45 minutes last night, which feels about right. But there’s no time to dwell, as I get stuck into a busy day of household chores and the dreaded supermarket shop. 

Thankfully. it’s a nice and easy Friday night dinner, and I spend the evening relaxing with a couple of G&T’s. It winds up being a slightly later night than normal, but I still find myself in bed at 11pm! There, I suffer the worsts night’s sleep of the week – I assume because of the alcohol. Even though it was only a couple. Every week I say I’m not drinking anymore as it affects my sleep so much, but I really enjoy a couple of glasses on a weekend. Clearly, it doesn’t like me back!

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “Having suffered insomnia in the past, you understandably have some anxiety about your sleep and make a lot of effort to manage it. While this is really commendable, trying too hard to get good sleep can actually cause us to sleep worse!

“That’s right; applying too much effort to our bedtime routines can in itself become a source of stress, which in turn leads to many restless nights. “Don’t worry, though, as I have some recommendations on how to help with this.’”

    Dr Nerina Ramlakhan Stylist's sleep expert
    Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

    Dr Nerina continues: “First things first, please stop measuring your sleep, and stop looking at the clock when you wake up – it’s normal to wake up during the night, and it’s usually anxiety caused by checking the time that stops us getting back to sleep.

    “I would also recommend that you get the TV out of the bedroom – or, at the very least, switch it off while you’re reading. The noise and extra information from the TV is keeping your brain in an overstimulated state, which is why your sleep is so restless.

    “You could probably do with getting a bit more sleep, which I’m sure you know already, as this would really help with your recovery from your runs. So, if you start to feel tired and a bit run down, maybe you could try scheduling a 30-minute nap at the weekend? Try to timetable it in for somewhere between 2 and 4pm. Please, though, don’t try to nap later than 4pm, and no longer than half an hour, otherwise it could affect you getting to sleep at night.”

    She finishes: “Otherwise, you have some great lifestyle habits and should be happy with yourself and your routine. Ironically, you just need to be a little more relaxed about your sleep!”

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    If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email us at digital.commissions@stylist.co.uk with ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

    Want more practical advice on how to achieve better sleep? On World Sleep Day (Friday 19 March), we will be hosting The Stylist Restival - a part sleep spa, part workshop. Tickets include four live sessions, one month free of Clementine, the all-new sleep app; plus a downloadable sleep guide. Book your place here

    Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

    Images: Getty/Unsplash/Ben Blennerhassett/Taisiia Shestopal

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    Kayleigh Dray

    Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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