3am Thoughts: What’s Going On? – Many people experience an increased level of self-criticism and distressing thoughts during the hours around 3am, ya know? Like, WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK? WHY am I awake? WHY am I NOT successful? WHY am I NOT married yet? But I digress…
The phenomenon is commonly referred to as “barbed-wire thinking” and can be difficult to escape from. However, these thoughts almost always vanish during daylight, revealing that the 3am thinking was irrational and unproductive. What could be behind this common experience?
A growing body of research in the fields of psychology, sleep, and circadian biology sheds light on what is happening in our bodies and minds during these hours. The circadian system, which regulates our sleep patterns, reaches a crucial turning point around 3 or 4am. During this time, our core body temperature starts to rise, our sleep drive begins to decrease, and the secretion of melatonin, the sleep hormone, reaches its peak. Meanwhile, cortisol levels, which are associated with stress, start to increase as the body prepares to enter the day. These changes occur independently of cues from the environment, such as dawn light, highlighting the significance of the circadian system in predicting the passage of time.
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In a typical night of sleep, we may wake up multiple times but are typically unaware of these awakenings due to being in light sleep. However, stress and anxiety can increase our level of self-awareness during these awakenings and lead to feelings of hyper-vigilance about being awake. This can result in anxious wakefulness and contribute to insomnia. In addition, there is a strong relationship between sleep and depression, and it’s important to seek medical help if you have concerns about your sleep.
The Pandemic’s Impact on Sleep The COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on people’s sleep, with many reporting increased levels of stress and difficulty sleeping. The pandemic has created a sleep-disturbing stressors for many, and if you are currently experiencing 3am wakings, you are not alone.
Catastrophizing in the Wee Hours At 3am, we are at our lowest point both physically and cognitively. Our internal resources, such as emotional and physical recovery, are at a minimum, and our external resources, such as social connections, cultural assets, and adult coping skills, are also unavailable in the middle of the night. This lack of resources, combined with the absence of distractions, leaves us alone in the dark with our thoughts, leading to a heightened sense of self-criticism and negative thinking.
3am Thoughts: What’s Going On?
This experience is known as catastrophizing, which involves identifying a problem, ruminating about the worst possible outcome, and neglecting the resources that would be available should the non-preferred outcome occur. In many cases, the mind is not actively seeking a solution to problems during 3am thinking. Instead, the experience is often characterized by worry, rather than productive problem-solving.
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 psychological treatment with cognitive behavioral 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.
How to Deal with 3am Thoughts
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.
Many people experience 3am thoughts as being self-focused and marked by feelings of guilt, regret, or baseless fears. Buddhism views this type of mental activity as a source of distress, and many people use Buddhist-inspired mindfulness techniques to manage stress during the day and night.
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One such technique is to focus on the sound of breathing, bringing attention to the senses and away from the thoughts. This can be aided by the use of earplugs to enhance the sound of breathing and reduce distractions. If this meditation does not provide relief after 15-20 minutes, cognitive-behavioral therapy recommends getting out of bed, turning on a dim light, and reading. This simple action can provide a powerful source of compassion and help to draw one out.
One last tip: It’s important to convince yourself (during daylight hours) that you want to avoid catastrophic thinking. For good reasons not to worry, you can’t go past the Stoic philosophers.
Waking and worrying at 3am is very understandable and very human. But in this bitch’s opinion, not a great habit to get into. Crazy Gurl NEEDS her beauty sleep, ya know?