When I wake at 3am or so, I’m prone to picking on myself. And I know I’m not the only one who does this. A friend of mine calls 3am thoughts “barbed-wire thinking,” because you can get caught in it.
The thoughts are often distressing and punitive. Strikingly, these concerns vaporise in the daylight, proving that the 3am thinking was completely irrational and unproductive.
So, what’s going on?
I’m a psychology researcher with expertise 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.
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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 to launch us into the 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.
Is everyone else waking up at at about 3 or 4am every single morning to do a quick mental round up of all their fears for 45 minutes then falling back asleep?— Rhys Nicholson (@rhysnicholson) October 9, 2021