Waking several times through the night is normal. Being fully alert and worrying about falling back asleep is not. Knowing what to do—and what not to do—when it does happen, however, can make the difference between getting back on track and lying awake for hours.

Waking through the night
Because sleep patterns cycle between deep REM sleep and lighter stages of sleep about every 90 minutes, it's quite common to wake up during transitions.

Most people, when in a dark room, don't consciously realize they've woken and can roll right over and back to sleep, says Joyce Walsleben, PhD, associate professor at the NYU School of Medicine.

But if you're already anxious about sleep or if a digital clock happens to catch your eye, you may find yourself lying awake longer, watching the minutes tick by.

The clock as an enemy
When you do find yourself awake long before the sun comes up, chances are the first thing you do is actually the worst thing for your insomnia: You check the time.

"The clock serves as a wake prompt," says Walsleben. "It heightens your arousal level and ruins the night. You should set the alarm clock and put it out of sight. If the bell hasn't gone off, it's none of your business what time it is; roll over and go back to sleep."

If you're worried about waking up mid-sleep, hide your clock before bed. Put it in a drawer or under your bed. As frustrating as it is, resisting the urge to peek is an important step in overcoming the clock's hold.

Try to relax, or get up and get out
While you're fighting the urge to check the clock, distract yourself with quiet meditation techniques. Deep breathing and guided imagery may lull you back to sleep.

After about 15 minutes, however, it's time to get out of bed. The worst thing you can do is lie there, associating your bed with anxiety and being awake.

"Insomniacs have practiced over the years getting into bed and worrying about falling asleep," says Kenneth Lichstein, PhD, director of the Sleep Research Project in the department of psychology at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Rather than perpetuating those worries, Lichstein recommends getting up, going into a dimly lit room, and doing a quiet activity such as knitting or reading.

Jo Dickison, 38, no longer stresses about being awake in the middle of the night—and she doesn't stay in bed waiting for sleep to come. After battling insomnia for four years, the executive assistant in Arlington, Va., has accepted that there will be nights when she has to amuse herself until she's able to sleep again.

"Sometimes I'll get back to sleep pretty quickly," she says, "but if I'm feeling particularly wound up, I'll watch TV for an hour or read. It helps me from overanalyzing every detail of my insomnia, and it helps me feel more in control."