I am prone to pick on myself when I get up at 3am. This is not a common occurrence. My friend calls 3am thoughts "barbed wire thinking" because it is easy to get caught up in it.
These thoughts can be distressing and even punitive. These thoughts vanish in daylight, which is a striking sign that the 3am thinking was completely irrational.
What's the deal?
My expertise is in psychology research, mood, and sleep. This is what the research suggests about this common experience.
What is happening in your body at 3am today?
Our neurobiology is at its peak around 3-4am after a normal night of sleep.
As the body prepares for the day ahead, core body temperature begins to rise. Sleep drive has slowed down (because we have had a lot of sleep).
Amazingly, this activity occurs independently of cues from nature such as sunrise or sunset. Nature decided long ago that these events are important enough that they need to be predicted (hence the Circadian system).
Light sleep is more common in second half of the day, as we wake up multiple times per night. If sleep is good, it's possible that we don't notice these awakenings. If you add some stress, there's a good chance that your waking state will be fully self-aware.
It's not surprising that the pandemic has been linked to sleep-disturbing stressors. If you are experiencing 3am wake-ups right now, you are not the only one.
Insomnia is also caused by stress. People become hypervigilant when they are awake.
People who worry about being awake when they should be asleep can wake up anxiously during light sleep phases.
If this sounds like you, cognitive behavioral therapy can help with insomnia. You should also consult your doctor if there are any concerns regarding your sleep.
Catastrophizing in bed at night
Cognitive therapist: I joke that 3am waking gives us all an example of catastrophizing.
This is the time when we are at our lowest cognitive and physical ebb. This is a period of emotional and physical recovery from nature, so it's not surprising that our internal resources are at their lowest.
We also lack the resources we need in the middle of the nights, such as cultural assets and social connections.
We are left in the dark with only our thoughts and human capital. The mind can be partially right when it concludes that the problems it has created are impossible to solve at 3am. Most problems would be.
We wake up at 3am to listen to the radio, eat our breakfast, and push the cat off the table. It's amazing how simple it is to just call this person, put off that thing, or check such-and-such was forgotten in the early hours.
Our minds are not really searching for solutions at 3 AM. Although we might believe that we are solving problems by thinking about them at 3am, this is actually problem solving's evil twin worry.
Worry can be a way to identify a problem and then ruminate about the worst outcome. It is also a way to neglect the resources that we have available should the unfavorable outcome occur.
What can we do to fix it?
Did you know that 3am thoughts tend to be very self-focused? It's easy to slip into extreme egocentricity in the dark. We can feel regret or guilt by circling around the concept of "I". You can also turn your tired thoughts towards the uncertain future and create baseless fears.
Buddhism strongly supports this type of mental activity. It says that the self is a fiction and that it is the source all distress. Many people now use Buddhist-informed mindfulness to manage stress during the day. I use mindfulness to manage 3am wakings.
My attention is drawn to the sound of my breathing and I try to pay more attention. When thoughts start to arise, I gently return my attention to the sound of my breathing. (Pro tip: Earplugs can help you hear your breath and get out from under your head).
Sometimes, this meditation works. Sometimes, it doesn't. If I find myself still stuck in negative thoughts after about 15 to 20 minutes, I will follow cognitive behavioral therapy's advice and get up, turn off the dimming light, and then read.
Although it may seem simple, this act can be a powerfully compassionate one at 3AM. It can also help you get out of unproductive thinking.
Last tip: Make sure you convince yourself during daylight hours that you don't want to think about anything catastrophic. There are good reasons to be calm and not worry.
It is perfectly normal to worry at 3am and wake up worrying. However, I do not think it is a good habit to develop.
This story may have raised concerns. If you feel the need to speak to someone, please refer to this list to locate a 24-hour crisis hotline in your country.
Greg Murray, Professor, Director, Centre for Mental Health at Swinburne University of Technology.
This article was republished by The Conversation under Creative Commons. You can read the original article.