See if you can relate to this scenario: Exhausted after a long day, you stumble into bed at 11 p.m. It seems just a few minutes have passed, but then you are wide awake at 3 a.m. running through a mental list of problems from the present, the past, and potential future problems as well. Then you stare at your bedside clock and flip out that you've been awake for 45 minutes already! There goes your plan to be well-rested before the client presentation tomorrow (today?)
Eventually, fatigue takes over, and you crash, only to wake up much later than you had originally planned. Your day has (once again) started off on the wrong foot.
If it's any consolation, you are not alone. Waking up in the middle of the night to worry is so common that current US Vice President Kamala Harris based her 2020 presidential campaign around what she referred to as the "3 a.m. agenda."
My entire campaign is about addressing the problems that keep you up at night. It's why I have a "3 a.m. Agenda." Kamala Harris
Why is being wide awake at 3 a.m. such a problem?
What causes the phrase "Why do I wake up at 3 a.m. for no reason?" to not just be a popular search term on google but also the focus of an entire political campaign?
Why is it such a big deal that we can't sleep through the night?
To answer these (profound) questions, we need some basic understanding of sleep science.
If there's one aspect of evolution we can't ignore, it's this: Evolution is a ruthless pruning machine. It retains what's vital to survival while getting rid of unnecessary baggage. Seen in that context, you wonder why we humans, ostensibly the most advanced of all species, feel the need to spend more than a third of our lifetimes sleeping, aka being unproductive?
Without regurgitating all the ins and outs of sleep science, the bottom line is this:
Sleep performs such critical functions in maintaining our physical and mental faculties that our very survival depends on it. In short, it is the eight hours of sleep a day that allows us to function for the other sixteen hours.
So, when we are wide awake at 3 a.m., our essential sleep cycles are disturbed. This turns us into the equivalent of blunt knives the next day: lethargic, dull, and irritable.
And sometimes, that can be hilarious. In retrospect. Just ask the experts in sleep deprivation—parents of newborn children.
Here's what one parent of a newborn said,
The baby had been up for hours, and I woke my husband up to tell him that I needed a little sleep, so he needed to take her. He got up, put on a hoodie, and left the room. I waited a few minutes, but he didn't come back, so I took the baby and went to see where he went. That's when I found him in her room, sitting in the rocker, rocking by himself. I asked him if he forgot something, and he said 'no.' I then asked him where the baby was, and he snapped out of it and realized he had forgotten her!
Whether you are just cranky after a night of disturbed sleep, forget to pick up your child from school, or fail to recall that you have a child at all, we can all agree that sleep deprivation can have some serious consequences.
But what causes us to wake up at ungodly hours in the first place?
Why are we wide awake at 3 a.m.?
Technically, not all sleep is the same. We go through multiple phases of sleep throughout the night. Some stages are deep and restorative, while others are lighter and dreamier. By 3 a.m., though, most of us start to get into the REM (Rapid eye movement) phase of sleep, when it becomes easier to wake up spontaneously, whether from a dream, a full bladder, or just out of habit.
By itself, the waking up is not a problem IF you can go back to sleep right away. However, for many of us, it's precisely the time the witching hour can take hold. In folklore, the witching hour or devil's hour is said to be the time when witches, demons, and ghosts are most potent.
As anyone who's been wide awake at 3 a.m. can attest to, one does not have to believe in the occult or the existence of external demons and ghosts to experience the witching hour. We all have enough creativity to carry with us our very own internal demons and spirits—anxiety and fears about unfinished businesses and potential catastrophes that are just waiting to corner us.
Here's the typical sequence of events if you find yourself awake at 3 a.m.
In the stillness and darkness of the night, you start to worry about the usual: paying bills, doing well on an upcoming test, or the excuses you will make for being late on your deliverable (again). And, before you know it, your brain activates your body's fight-or-flight response. Soon your heart rate and blood pressure, which were calm and controlled just a few minutes ago when you were fast asleep, are suddenly elevated. Your body gears up to fight instead of sleep. And bam, just like that, you transition from being asleep to being wide awake.
Keep up the above routine for a few days in a row, and you can be guaranteed to be cranky, fretful, and forgetful.
There are a few key reasons we go (in the blink of an eye) from a state of apparent bliss to panic-attack-inducing anxiety.
What are we worried about?
The almost 8 billion people inhabiting our planet today cannot agree on most things. Some still insist the earth is flat and that the moon landing was a hoax. But one thing we can all agree on is this idea: every single one of us has no shortage of problems, even though the kind of problems we worry about on any given day can vary.
According to the Feb 2022 World Economic Forum's IPSOS survey, What worries the world in 2022, we are worried about Covid, poverty, social and economic inequality, and unemployment. And get this: 63% of us think our countries are headed in the wrong direction.
Closer to home, Americans are worried about inflation, affordability of healthcare, violent crime, and gun violence.
But it isn't just these kinds of global worries that keep us up at 3 a.m.
We also worry about how costly our car repair will be, get upset about not being invited to a fiftieth birthday bash, and worry whether we'll have enough time to park and get to the flight to take us on vacation.
In short, 3 a.m. is when we are fully convinced that life sucks. And every day brings with it not just a carried-forward list of worries from the past, but unique, new ones, you know, to mix it all up a little bit.
Have the sentences in this section been uplifting enough for you (/s)?
In the face of this never-ending list of things you could worry about, how do we train our brain to turn off the worry faucet and go back to blissful sleep?
How to redirect an errant mind
Experts have chimed in on this issue and come up with a few suggestions listed in this section. Our job is to mix and match these to see what works for us.
If you find yourself wide awake at 3 a.m. worrying about social justice, inflation, or what to wear to a co-worker's wedding, here are some tips that will help you stop worrying and get back to sleep.
But, first, the obvious. Ensure you are not waking up in the middle of the night due to a chronic underlying condition such as insomnia or a sleep disorder. If so, you need to see someone qualified. There's a reason physicians get upset when we conflate our google searches with their real medical degrees.
Here are some ways to manage the garden variety 3 a.m. stress.
1. Recount something boring, aka "Count sheep."
Okay. First, a pet peeve. When was the last time you were responsible for bringing a grazing flock of sheep home? Or, when was the last time you even saw sheep?
For most of us living in the urban sprawl (and the less fortunate of us in suburbia,) the expression "count sheep" makes as much sense as saying "it's raining cats and dogs." (If you've ever seen animal showers, please reach out to me. I find you fascinating already.)
Here's a more practical piece of advice. Think back to a day in your life that was so routine that it would make a Norwegian Matpakke (the world's most boring sandwich) seem exotic.
Then try to recount that day hour by hour. The sheer drabness of it all will likely send you right back to sleep.
2. Tragedy or inconvenience
Ask yourself whether what's keeping you up at 3 a.m. is a tragedy or merely an inconvenience. Often, it's bound to be the latter.
A house burning down from a forest fire is a tragedy. But running out of battery on your phone and not being able to check your twitter-feed for six hours? An inconvenience.
Tragedies are rare, life-altering, and can definitely keep you up all night. But, inconveniences? They deserve to be acknowledged and forgotten or at least shelved until daylight.
For this reason, experts advise that we write down a list of things bothering us on a piece of paper before we go to bed. That way, the paper and not your brain will bear the brunt of the problem overnight.
3. Do something calming, not exciting
If, like me, you have a stubborn streak within you, lying in bed and reasoning with yourself maybe like a stalemate situation in chess. In such cases, the advice is to get out of bed and do something calming for a little while. Reading nonfiction, meditating, knitting, etc., are all great candidates.
The key here is not to do anything that revs you up, such as doomscrolling, responding to emails, or watching infomercials on TV. In addition to ruining our sleep further, they may have unintended consequences.
Remember that our brains function less than perfectly when you are wide awake at 3 a.m. If you're not careful, you may be making questionable life choices like ordering the Hawaii chair because, after all, who wouldn't want great abs while sitting at work for 40 hours a week.
4. Control your sleep environment
Of course, the ideal situation is to find ways not to have a disrupted sleep schedule in the first place. Make sure all the factors that aid good sleep are in place, starting with a dark, cool room.
The invention of artificial light has been a boon in many ways, but it also means we subject our eyes and our brains to light way longer than we used to. The presence of light messes with the production of melatonin, so the longer we stare at our screens, the worse it is for the quality of our sleep.
Additionally, modern-day appliances such as chargers and phones are equipped with blindingly bright status indicators making them glimmer like glow worms in caves at night. Find ways to turn those off. If not, get them out of your bedroom.
Having a dark, cool room signals your brain to sleep rather than work.
When we wake up at 3 a.m., we tend to nitpick on ourselves even more than we would during the day. Everything, especially problems, may seem amplified in the darkness and stillness of the night. Our tendency to catastrophize is at its peak during this time, and so is the feeling of having to battle our problems all alone. It's called the witching hour for a reason.
But it doesn't have to be.
Ideally, we'd find ways to sleep through the night. But failing that, there are strategies we can use to get back to sleep soon after a 3 a.m. awakening. It's a problem that's worth nipping in the bud. Otherwise, we may drive ourselves crazy or, worse, make some questionable life choices that will taunt us forever. I'm looking at you Hawaii chair.