When you wake at 3am or so, do you find your mind is active? Are your thoughts sometimes distressing and circling. Do these concerns seem to diminish in the daylight, proving that the 3am thinking was irrational and unproductive?
So, what’s going on? Here’s what research shows may be behind this common experience.
What’s Happening in Your Body at 3am?
In a normal night’s sleep, our neurobiology reaches a turning point around 3 or 4am.
Core body temperature starts to rise, sleep drive is reducing (because we’ve had a chunk of sleep), secretion of melatonin (the sleep hormone) has peaked, and levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) are increasing as the body prepares for a new day.
Remarkably, all this activity happens independent of cues from the environment such as dawn light – nature decided long ago that sunrise and sunset are so important that they must be predicted (hence the circadian system).
We actually wake up many times each night, and light sleep is more common in the second half of the night. When sleep is going well for us, we are simply unaware of these awakenings. But add a bit of stress and there is a good chance that waking will become a fully self-aware state.
Not surprisingly, there is evidence the pandemic has been a sleep-disturbing stressor. So if you’re experiencing 3am wakings at the moment, you’re definitely not alone.
Stress also impacts sleep in insomnia, where people become hypervigilant about being awake.
Concerns about being awake when one “should” be asleep can cause the person to jolt themselves into anxious wakefulness whenever they go through a light sleep phase.
If that sounds like you, be aware that insomnia responds well to therapy. There’s also a strong link between sleep and depression, so it’s important to speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about your sleep.
Catastrophising in the Wee Hours
Around this time in the sleep cycle, we’re at our lowest ebb physically and cognitively. From nature’s viewpoint, this is meant to be a time of physical and emotional recovery, so it’s understandable that our internal resources are low.
But we also lack other resources in the middle of the night like social connections and coping skills. We are left alone in the dark with our thoughts. So the mind is partly right when it concludes the problems it’s generated are unsolvable – at 3am, most problems literally would be unsolvable.
Once the sun’s up, we’re listening to the radio, eating breakfast and connecting with people and pets, and our 3am problems are put in perspective. We can’t believe the solutions we see now were overlooked in the wee hours.
The truth is, our mind isn’t really looking for a solution at 3am. We might think we are problem solving by mentally working over issues at this hour, but this isn’t really problem solving; it’s problem solving’s evil twin – worry.
Worry at it’s worst is identifying a problem, ruminating about the worst possible outcome and neglecting the resources we would bring to bear should the non-preferred outcome actually occur.
So, What Can We Do about It?
Have you noticed the 3am thoughts are very self-focused? In the quiet dark, it’s easy to slide unknowingly into a state of extreme egocentricity. Circling round the concept “I”, we can generate painful backwards-looking feelings like guilt or regret. Or turn our tired thoughts to the always uncertain future, generating baseless fears.
Buddhism has a strong position on this type of mental activity: the self is a fiction, and that fiction is the source of all distress. Many of us use Buddhist-informed mindfulness to manage stress in the daytime.
Try to bring your attention to your senses, specifically the sound of your breath. When you notice thoughts arising, gently bring your attention back to the sound of breathing (earplugs help you hear the breath and get out of your head).
Sometimes meditation works. Sometimes it doesn’t. If you are still caught in negative thinking after 15 or 20 minutes, get up, turn on a soft light and read a book or magazine.
This may seem mundane, but at 3am it is powerfully compassionate, and can help draw you out of your unproductive thinking.
One last tip: It’s important to remind yourself (during daylight hours) that you want to avoid catastrophic thinking.
Waking and worrying at 3am is very understandable and very human, but not a great habit to get into.
Call or email today to get help: phone- 484.8786.1843, e-mail- firstname.lastname@example.org