Broken sleep: the upside of waking up in the middle of the night

Karen Emslie at Aeon Magazine explores why broken sleep is a golden time for creativity.  I’ve discovered for myself the truth of this. It’s been a lovely mysterious part of my healing journey. The loveliness of night. We’re primed to distrust and fear sleeplessness and yet once I let myself go into those wakeful times I found access to part of my consciousness that I would not have otherwise found. This is yet another way we need to forget what we’ve been told. And in so doing shed some of our fear.

Broken sleep

People once woke up halfway through the night to think, write or make love. What have we lost by sleeping straight through?  (a new article on Aeon Magazine explores this issue once again)

I’m reposting my thoughts from March 2012 on this phenomena below. Since I wrote the below article I’ve experimented further with these wakeful hours in the middle of the night and now I often spend 2 to 4 hours in the middle of the night meditating or writing. On occasion I also do gentle yoga. I do whatever my creative guide suggests I need and it’s been a lovely part of my healing experience. Lately the time is used mostly for deep contemplation and meditation. It is a very special time that I very much love to have in my life. I no longer stress not sleeping but go with what it is my body leads me to do.

New, update: Sometimes I practice Yoga Nidra while awake and that too helps relax for sleep  (free meditation download included in that post)

Here were my first thoughts on the phenomena when I was still very ill and frightened. We might say it’s certainly gotten better.

Insomnia? Or is your body just asking to sleep like our ancestors did?

The links to articles about segmented sleep has been sitting in my draft folder for over a week now. This is a subject I’ve been wanting to write about for a couple of years, well before this more recent news cycle about the phenomena. I first read about segmented sleep via Wikipedia when someone shared the link with me.

Since then, like Lynn Parramore in this alternet article who found some peace of mind in learning how to listen to her body’s needs, the knowledge has informed my experience, too, as my body heals and learns to sleep again without drugs.

I am happy to share this information with my readers finally, since I think it may help and inform many.

Myth of the 8 hour sleep — BBC News

We often worry about lying awake in the middle of the night – but it could be good for you. A growing body of evidence from both science and history suggests that the eight-hour sleep may be unnatural.

In the early 1990s, psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted an experiment in which a group of people were plunged into darkness for 14 hours every day for a month.

It took some time for their sleep to regulate but by the fourth week the subjects settled into a very distinct sleeping pattern. They slept first for four hours, then woke for one or two hours before falling into a second four-hour sleep….


…Today, most people seem to have adapted quite well to the eight-hour sleep, but Ekirch believes many sleeping problems may have roots in the human body’s natural preference for segmented sleep as well as the ubiquity of artificial light.

This could be the root of a condition called sleep maintenance insomnia, where people wake during the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, he suggests.

The condition first appears in literature at the end of the 19th Century, at the same time as accounts of segmented sleep disappear.

“For most of evolution we slept a certain way,” says sleep psychologist Gregg Jacobs. “Waking up during the night is part of normal human physiology.”

The idea that we must sleep in a consolidated block could be damaging, he says, if it makes people who wake up at night anxious, as this anxiety can itself prohibit sleeps and is likely to seep into waking life too.

So, yeah, since I withdrew from all psychiatric drugs my sleep has been struggling to come back online. Many people coming off of psychiatric drugs are struck with severe withdrawal syndromes and autonomic dysfunction and so need to basically learn to sleep again. The process is rather agonizing and slow.

I’m still in the midst of it, hardly home-free, but learning about segmented sleep as a normal human mode of sleep has helped me tremendously. Instead of fretting about getting up in the middle of the night after a “first sleep,” I began to embrace that time as some of my normal waking hours.

Lynn Parramore in this alternet article:

This waking period, known in some cultures as the “watch,” was filled with everything from bringing in the animals to prayer. Some folks visited neighbors. Others smoked a pipe or analyzed their dreams. Often they lounged in bed to read, chat with bedfellows, or have much more refreshing sex than we modern humans have at bedtime. A 16th-century doctor’s manual prescribed sex after the first sleep as the most enjoyable variety.

I found that once I embraced this “waking period” I actually started using the time in the middle of the night quite creatively. I often do my best writing after my first sleep and before my second sleep! Also I’ve noticed that if I fight what I’ve become to see as as need to get up in the middle of the night, I’m less likely to get back to sleep at all. My body wants to and performs better if I get up for 1 to 3 hours in the middle of the night!

Again Lynn Parramore:

We have been told over and over that the eight-hour sleep is ideal. But in many cases, our bodies have been telling us something else. Since our collective memory has been erased, anxiety about nighttime wakefulness has kept us up even longer, and our eight-hour sleep mandate may have made us more prone to stress.

Since I’m disabled and mostly homebound it’s been relatively easy and not at all additionally stressful to experiment with this way of sleeping. In fact it’s only just helped me a whole lot. I realize that for people with jobs and commitments outside their homes that this way of sleeping might present a challenge.

For example I most often go to bed between 7 and 8 pm. I am then up somewhere between midnight and 2 am for a couple or 3 hours and then I return to bed where I again sleep. I get that people with busy 21st century lives might find it hard to find some variation of that theme. Still if one can figure out a way to manage something of the sort I think it might be very helpful for a lot of people who have imagined and been told they have insomnia.

In any case many people who read this blog have learned the hard way that sleeping pills are pretty much useless at best and dangerous at worst. Benzodiazepine use (or their cousins, the z-drugs) and the subsequent withdrawal from them can cause a far worse issue with iatrogenic insomnia and autonomic dysfunction as well as serious protracted withdrawal.

Like  Lynn Parramore shares in her article on alternet:

The pharmaceutical industry recommends drug-induced oblivion, which, it turns out, doesn’t even work. The average time spent sleeping increases by only a few minutes with the use of prescription sleep aids. And — surprise! — doctors have just linked sleeping pills to cancer.

And don’t forget these drugs have also been linked to early death. and they cause atrocious withdrawal syndromes in a significant minority of people who use them. For a long list of links to information on benzodiazepine use and withdrawal see here. Learn to avoid these drugs and to sleep as nature intended instead!

I highly recommend reading all of Lynn Parramore’s piece on alternet. She goes into some great more details about sleeping like our ancestors did.


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