Is Insomnia Actually Insomnia: First Sleep and Second Sleep

Dr. Colin Lemmon

Insomnia Series

To Sleep or Not to Sleep

Many people who report having insomnia often get to sleep just fine but wake for an hour or two each night around 1 to 3 am. They become anxious about getting back to sleep and worry about the effect this will have on the following day. Some get up and read or watch TV until they are too exhausted to stay awake, and then they stumble back to bed. As the night rolls on the anxiety continues to build and they toss and turn, sleeping poorly until morning when they wake exhausted.

If this is you then read on.

So What’s the Problem?

The problem is not the waking or the not sleeping, it’s the anxiety you suffer because you think you should be asleep. You see the concept of sleeping through the night is a modern invention that grew from the changing work requirements of the industrial revolution. Before this time, people slept in two distinct periods referred to as first sleep and second sleep. First sleep was a deep reinvigorating sleep that lasted four to five hours, while second sleep was a lighter sleep where people often just dozed until dawn. In between first sleep and second sleep, people would get up and chat, sew, visit neighbours, and engage in acts of procreation; all by moonlight or firelight. Robert Louis Stevenson of Treasure Island fame discovered this pattern of sleep while he was trekking through the French highlands and said that he had never before experienced a “more perfect hour.”

That Perfect Hour

My advice during this “perfect hour” is Don’t Panic. Get up and chill out, or prop yourself up on the pillows and relax or doze lightly until you’re ready to go back to sleep. With this mindset, it is perfectly okay to look at the clock which is an unnecessary source of anguish for many. Learn to enjoy and utilise the time when you are awake.

Thomas Jefferson used to read a book before bed for the purpose of pondering and ruminating in it when he woke between first sleep and second sleep.

If you do get up during this period it is very important that you do not turn on the lights unless they are red lights or candle light. Do not turn on the TV or look at your phone, tablet or computer (regardless of whether you have software to filter the display or not). If you need a drink have water and not a stimulant such as coffee.

While you are awake, you may like to have a dim night light handy in case you want to jot down some thoughts.  Then you can just chill out and let your mind drift to things you are passionate about, or just enjoy the peace and solitude of the night until you are ready for second sleep. If you just doze lightly till morning, that is perfectly fine.

After a lifetime of insomnia, this is now my pattern of sleep. I sleep soundly through first sleep and then wake and get up for an hour or so each night. Then it’s back to bed for second sleep where I just doze on and off through the early hours and I wake at first light feeling refreshed and re-energized. In fact if I sleep soundly through the night I feel cheated.

Waking During the Night

If you wake through the night consider the following:

  1. Do not to turn on the lights even for a minute (except for a red night light or candle)
  2. Never turn on a computer or electronic device
  3. Uncover your body or get up to let the heat dissipate and bring your core temperature down to trigger the next sleep phase
  4. Do not drink stimulants such as coffee.

Read more on first sleep and second sleep

Insomnia Series

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