When I wake up at around 3 a.m., I’m prone to pestering myself. And I know I’m not the only one doing this. A friend of mine calls the 3am thoughts “barbed wire thought” because you can get caught up in it.
Thoughts are often painful and punitive. Surprisingly, these worries evaporate in the light of day, proving that the 3 a.m. thought was completely irrational and unproductive.
So what is going on?
I am a psychology researcher specializing in mood, sleep and the circadian system (the internal clock regulating sleep). Here’s what the research says about what may be behind this common experience.
What happens in your body at 3 a.m.
In a normal night’s sleep, our neurobiology reaches a turning point around 3 or 4 a.m.
The core body temperature begins to rise, the sleep drive decreases (because we have partially slept), the secretion of melatonin (the sleep hormone) has peaked, and the levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) have peaked. increase as the body prepares to launch us into the day.
Remarkably, all this activity is happening independent environmental cues such as dawn light – nature decided a long time ago that sunrise and sunset are so important that they should be predicted (hence the circadian system).
In fact, we wake up several times a night and light sleep is more common in the second half of the night. When sleep is going well for us, we simply ignore these awakenings. Corn add some stress and there is a good chance that waking up will become a state of full self-awareness.
Stress also impacts sleep in insomnia, where people become hypervigilant to be awake.
Worries about being awake when you “should” be asleep can cause the person to shake themselves up. anxious awakening whenever they go through a phase of light sleep.
If this sounds like you, know that insomnia responds well to psychological treatment with cognitive behavioral therapy. There is also a close link between sleep and depression, so it is important to talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about your sleep.
Catastrophic in the wee hours
As a cognitive therapist I sometimes joke: the only good thing about waking up at 3 a.m. is that it gives us all a vivid example of catastrophism.
At this time of the sleep cycle, we are at our lowest physical and cognitive level. From nature’s point of view, it’s meant to be a period of physical and emotional recovery, so it’s understandable that our internal resources are low.
But we also run out of other resources in the middle of the night – social connections, cultural assets, not all of an adult’s coping skills are available right now.
Without any of our human skills and capital, we are left alone in the dark with our thoughts. So the mind is partly right when it concludes that the problems it has generated are unsolvable – by 3 a.m. most problems literally would be.
After the sun comes up, we listen to the radio, chew our toast, and push the cat off the bench, and our 3am problems are put into perspective. We can’t believe that the solution of calling that person, postponing this thing, or checking on this or that thing has been overlooked in the wee hours.
The truth is, our minds aren’t really looking for a solution at 3 a.m. We could think we are solving problems by mentally working on problems at this time, but it is not really problem solving; it’s the evil twin of problem-solving – worrying.
Worrying is about identifying a problem, ruminating on the worst possible outcome, and neglecting the resources that we would bring in if the non-preferred outcome actually occurred.
So what can we do about it?
Have you noticed that the thoughts of 3 a.m. are very self-centered? In the calm darkness, it’s easy to unknowingly slip into a state of extreme self-centeredness. By revolving around the “I” concept, we can generate painful backward feelings like guilt or regret. Or turn our tired thoughts towards an always uncertain future, generating baseless fears.
Buddhism has a strong position on this type of mental activity: the self is a fiction, and this fiction is the source of all distress. Many of us are now practicing mindfulness manage stress during the day; I use mindfulness to deal with waking up at 3 a.m.
I focus on my senses, especially the sound of my breathing. When I notice thoughts arise, I gently bring my attention back to the sound of the breath (pro tip: earplugs help you hear the breath and get out of your head).
Sometimes this meditation works. Sometimes not. If I am still caught in negative thoughts after 15 or 20 minutes, I am the advice cognitive behavioral therapy, and get up, turn on the dim light, and read.
This action may seem trivial, but at 3 a.m. it is powerfully compassionate and can help lift you out of your unproductive thoughts.
One final tip: it’s important to convince yourself (during daylight hours) that you want to avoid catastrophic thoughts. For good reason not to worry, you cannot exceed the Stoic philosophers.
Waking up and worrying at 3 a.m. is very understandable and very human. But in my opinion, it is not a good habit to take.
If this story has raised concerns or if you need to speak to someone, please check this list to find a 24/7 crisis hotline in your country and ask for assistance.