But even if we can’t agree on things like whether the entire country is being run by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles or not, there are some things we all know are true. Vaccines don’t cause autism; Nessie is real; and 3 or 4 am is just the worst time to be awake.
“As a cognitive therapist, I sometimes joke the only thing good about 3 am waking is that it gives us all a vivid example of catastrophizing,” wrote Greg Murray, Director of the Centre for Mental Health at Swinburne University of Technology, Australia.
“Waking and worrying at 3am is very understandable and very human,” he continued in his 2021 article for The Conversation. “But in my opinion, not a great habit to get into.”
But what’s behind this collective wee-hours waking? If you regularly find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 or 4 am, you’re in good company: it’s a phenomenon reported by around one in three of us, and probably more since the pandemic started.
That’s because, according to sleep experts, these early ruminations are related to stress – though not quite directly. Being stressed doesn’t make us wake up more in the night, Murray explained, but it does make us more aware of it happening.
“We actually wake up many times each night, and light sleep is more common in the second half of the night,” he wrote. “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.”
And stress isn’t the only factor that can jolt us awake at 3 am. Erratic schedules; doomscrolling; even a lack of fresh air can muddy our sleep hygiene enough to wake us up in the night.
“Wake up at the same time every day, and don’t get in bed until you feel sleepy,” advised Stephanie Romiszewski, a sleep physiologist and director of the Sleepyhead Clinic, in Metro.co.uk.
“You’ll notice that if you’re waking up at the same time every day, that will start to become your regular time,” she explained. “Try to keep up with exercise and [get] bright light exposure in the mornings. Make sure you have social time, too. We need … our brains to understand the only opportunity to sleep will be the usual nighttime.”
So we know some reasons why we wake up in the night – but why does it seem to happen so specifically at 3 or 4 a.m.? Well, consider the following: most of us typically nod off between 11 pm and midnight, and wake up between seven and eight in the morning. What times sit slap-bang in the middle of those intervals?
“Throughout the night, our sleep cycles between rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Each stage of sleep has a different threshold for how easy it is to be woken up,” explained Aneesa Das, assistant director of the Sleep Medicine Program at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center.
“One likely explanation for waking up at the same time each night is that you go to sleep at the same time and then, at the same time each night, you reach a light stage of sleep and wake up,” she wrote.
You might think of the body’s sleep cycles as being just a repeating pattern, but in fact, we spend different lengths of time in each stage as the night goes on. Crucially, as the morning gets ever-closer, the amount of time we spend in REM sleep increases – meaning we’re spending more and more time in a comparatively light and dream-filled slumber.
“Maybe it's possible that some of this [waking up in the early hours] reflects waking from anxiety dreams,” Michael K. Scullin, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University in Texas, told Newsweek. That needn’t be from nightmares about beasts from the dungeon dimensions either: “Scientists have suspected for about a hundred years now that unfinished tasks rest at a heightened level of activation in the brain until they can be completed,” he said.
Luckily, this means that there’s a fairly simple fix: keep a to-do list.
“Keeping a notepad by the bedside and writing out everything on your to-do list, as well as any other worries or stressors circulating in your mind, has been shown to help,” Scullin said. He was the author of a 2018 paper which showed that spending five minutes before bed compiling a list of future tasks made a significant difference in how quickly study participants fell asleep – and, he told Newsweek, the same principle should apply to nighttime waking too.
This would make sense, according to Colin Espie, a professor of sleep medicine at the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences at the University of Oxford, who advocates what he calls “putting the day to rest.” Simply put, this means taking some time before sleep to review the past day’s events and plan ahead to tomorrow’s.
“When people wake up during the night the thing that comes to mind that may worry them is usually quite predictable,” he told Newsweek. “That is, something that has been happening the previous day or something that's coming up the next day.”
The practice of a to-do list could, therefore, “[assist] the brain” to process things without waking you up, he said.
If that doesn’t work, though, it may be time to see a specialist – especially if the problem has been bothering you for more than a couple of months, advised Romiszewski.
“If it’s been over three months, then absolutely [see a doctor],” she told Metro.co.uk.
“After three months, any kind of sleep problem can become habitual, like a pattern for your brain. At that point, no amount of getting rid of the original trigger is going to get rid of the problem. You may get rid of the stress, for example, but the sleep [issue] can remain.”
“That’s when you need insomnia treatment, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), to help change the behavior pattern,” she said. “For [that] you’ll need to see your [doctor] or a sleep expert.”