Waking up in the middle of the night can be a stressor for even the most laid-back people. Your mind starts wandering, thinking of how tired you’ll be in the morning if you can’t get some more decent shut-eye. When rolling over or counting livestock doesn’t work, slight anxiety can turn into full-fledged worry — worry that spills over to every issue in your life that’s now contributing to your insomnia.
Worry and stress are definitely the world’s best anti-sleeping drugs. But just because you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a bad thing. In fact, waking up for an hour (or even a few) used to be common, and was viewed as natural, not a problem. Several studies show that the definition of “a good night’s sleep” is completely dependent upon what century you lived in, and look very different from our current standard of one eight-hour block.
The unnatural 8-hour sleep cycle
The eight-hour block of uninterrupted slumber is a convention of modern times. In fact, up until the 1900s, there were other schools of thought about what rest looked like. In the 1980s and 1990s, history professor Roger Ekirch started to notice references of unique sleep patterns in his collection of texts. “First sleep” and “second sleep” were common occurrences, and it served as a signal that sleep used to happen in distinct chunks. Ekirch later went on to write a book called At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past that described how sleep patterns used to be four hours at a time, with a one- or two-hour break in between the first and second segments.
In the same way an insomniac today scans Facebook or picks through their latest book of the month, the waking hours of the night were filled with activity, Ekirch found. Generations of people who depended on sunlight for work went to sleep when night fell, then awoke around midnight or so. They filled an hour or so with reading, prayer, visiting neighbors, or sex. Then they fell asleep for another four hours before waking up to begin the next day, often at daybreak or soon after.
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