Why Do We Wake Up Around 3 AM and Dwell on Our Fears and Shortcomings?

You’re not the only one. We’ve all been there at one or another point in our lives. Waking up in the middle of the night, struggling with catastrophic thinking which adds to our stress and insomnia. 

These distressing thoughts are often irrational and unproductive.

 But, they’re so easy to get caught up in. You suddenly wake up and start ruminating on all your fears for an hour or so before you fall asleep again.

What Happens to the Body at 3 AM?

During a normal night’s sleep, the body’s neurobiology reaches a turning point at around 3 am or 4 am. The core temperature of your body begins to increase and the sleep drive is dropping since you already had several hours of sleep. 

The melatonin secretion has peaked and the cortisol levels are elevating as the body is preparing us for the upcoming day. This activity occurs independent of environmental cues like the dawn light. We wake up several times at night and lighter sleep is more common in the second half of our sleeping period. 

When we’re sleeping well, we’re not aware of these awakenings. However, combined with a bit of stress, there’s a good chance for the awakening to be more noticeable. Stress affects sleep and may cause people to become hypervigilant about being awake. 

Worrying about being awake when you are supposed to be asleep may cause anxious wakefulness whenever you go through a lighter sleeping phase. If this sounds like something that you’re going through, you should know that insomnia responds quite well to cognitive behavioral therapy. 

And, sleep and depression are associated so it’s essential to discuss any sleeping problems with your doctor. 

Catastrophizing Thoughts at 3 am 

Waking up at 3 am is a great example of what it means to catastrophize. At this point in the sleep cycle, we’re at the lowest ebb, both physically and cognitively. This is the time for physical and emotional recovery so it’s normal for our internal sources to be low.

We also lack other resources during the night that would help us problem-solve like our social connections, cultural assets, and the coping skills of adults. At night and in the dark, we have none of these resources, only our thoughts. At 3 am, the mind begins to think that all of the problems are unsolvable.

When the sun is up, we’re listening to the radio, eating toast, and putting our problems in perspective. And, we’re also coming up with solutions. 

What Can We Do About Those 3 am Ruminating Thoughts?

The 3 am thoughts tend to be very self-focused. The silence and darkness at 3 am make it easier to enter into a state of egocentrism. This can generate more feelings of regret and guilt or cause us to fear the future. 

Buddhism has a helpful view on this type of mental activity. It notes that the self is fiction and fiction is the source of all stress we experience. 

Buddhist practices can help us go back to our senses, especially to the breath. When you spot thoughts arising, you need to come back to the sound of the breath. 

Sometimes, such relaxing methods can work and other times, they won’t. But, using other ways of coping like those learned from therapy can help.