Why Do You Wake Up At the Same Time Every Night? Here’s What Sleep Psychologists Understand

You’re more likely to wake up at certain points in the night than others.

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If you have ever woken up in the middle of the night unable to get back to sleep, you know how frustrating that experience can be. Sometimes, you might even find yourself waking up at the same exact time multiple nights in a row. As bizarre as this may seem, psychologists say there’s a reason for this weird sleep behavior.

Is waking up at night normal?

“It's normal to have awakenings,” says Matthew Ebben, a psychologist specializing in sleep medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian and associate director of the Weill Cornell Center for Sleep Medicine.

Most people wake up at the end of a sleep cycle, which consists of four stages that you can cycle through four to six times per night. How deeply you sleep varies as your sleep cycle progresses, so you’re more likely to wake up at certain points in the cycle than others.

“We wake up throughout the nighttime often not realizing we’re waking up,” says J. Todd Arnedt, professor of psychiatry and neurology at the University of Michigan Medical School and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program. Ebben calls these brief wake-ups “electrocortical arousal,” saying they can last only a few seconds. Registering arousal is normal, too, provided you can go back to sleep before long, Ebben and Arnedt say.

For better or worse, punctuated wake-ups become more common as we age. This natural change comes from a shift in sleep physiology, Arnedt says. A 2008 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found awakenings became more frequent with age, particularly in those who had a history of waking up. People 65 and older had the largest percentage of nightly wakeups for their demographic. One-third of people 65 and up woke up every night, compared to 10 percent of subjects between ages 18 and 25. This percentage steadily increased across demographics.

Why do I wake up at the same time every night?

However, researchers still don’t fully understand why many of us tend to wake up at the same time every night. The many variables that contribute to a regular wakeup are difficult to isolate. There’s your circadian rhythm timing your sleep cycles, your body’s response to its changing environment, like sound and temperature, and your wakeful habits that impact your sleep drive, which is the buildup of your body’s need for sleep. There’s no single reason that we find ourselves staring at the same time on the clock over and over, according to researchers.

Regular awakenings can arise from many behavioral factors, says Arnedt. Habits like napping in the afternoon or eating heavy meals at night can jam your internal clock. Looking at your phone when you wake up in the middle of the night might mess with your circadian rhythm, too. Even an evening cup of tea could cause you to wake up having to use the restroom.

However, “it's not normal to wake up for an hour or two,” Ebben says. Struggling to return to dreamland can be a sign of sleep maintenance insomnia, or difficulty falling and remaining asleep. This sort is opposed to onset insomnia, where it’s challenging to fall asleep from the get-go. Arnedt says that difficulty returning to sleep at least three times a week is a good benchmark for a doctor’s consultation.

And according to Ebben, “what you really need to focus on is how you feel” when you’re awake. Maybe it’s not too hard for you to fall asleep, but if you feel exhausted while you’re functioning, that can tell you something about your sleep quality.

The 2008 study found that nearly a quarter of respondents reported waking up at least one night a week, and over one-third attested to waking up at least three nights a week. But only 40 percent of participants reported other insomnia symptoms, which is to say waking up at night isn’t uncommon at all.

Unless you’re facing other symptoms besides waking up, Arnedt says there’s nothing to worry about. “Most people don’t sleep right through the night.”

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