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Struggling to get to sleep?

Many of our worries seem to surface at night and make it harder for us to doze off again.

This can be a problem even when concerns don’t make you fret during the day.

Hull Live looked at expert advice to find out why this can happen so often.

They shared the thoughts of Greg Murray, who is a psychology researcher with expertise in mood, sleep and the circadian system (the internal clock regulating sleep).

He shared his words of wisdom, as well as advice on combatting feeling restless as night. Here’s all you need to know.

What happens to your body at 3am?

Professor Murray says: “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, avandia related deaths 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.

“Not surprisingly, there is evidence the pandemic is a sleep-disturbing stressor. So if you’re experiencing 3am wakings at the moment, you’re definitely not alone.

“Stress also impacts sleep in insomnia, where people become hypervigilant about being awake.

“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 behavioural 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.”


Why do we worry at night?

"As a cognitive therapist, I sometimes joke the only thing good about 3am waking is that it gives us all a vivid example of catastrophising,” Professor Murray says.

“Around this time in the sleep cycle, we’re at our lowest ebb physically and cognitively. From nature’s viewpoint, this is meant to be a time of physical and emotional recovery, so it’s understandable that our internal resources are low.

“But we also lack other resources in the middle of the night – social connections, cultural assets, all the coping skills of an adult are unavailable at this time. With none of our human skills and capital, we are left alone in the dark with our thoughts. So the mind is partly right when it concludes the problems it’s generated are unsolvable – at 3am, most problems literally would be.

“Once the sun’s up, we’re listening to the radio, chewing our Vegemite toast and pushing the cat off the bench, and our 3am problems are put in perspective. We can’t believe the solution of just ringing this person, postponing that thing, or checking such-and-such was overlooked in the wee hours.

“The truth is, our mind isn’t really looking for a solution at 3am. We might think we are problem solving by mentally working over issues at this hour, but this isn’t really problem solving; it’s problem solving’s evil twin – worry.

“Worry is identifying a problem, ruminating about the worst possible outcome and neglecting the resources we would bring to bear should the non-preferred outcome actually occur.”

How to get back to sleep at 3am

The expert recommends mindfulness or similar meditative techniques, which can help to banish worries.

Not only are they great for relaxing, they also re-focus the mind on the present.

Professor Murray adds: “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.

“Buddhism has a strong position on this type of mental activity: the self is a fiction, and that fiction is the source of all distress. Many of us now practise Buddhist-informed mindfulness to manage stress in the daytime; I use mindfulness to deal with 3am wakings.

“I bring my attention to my senses, specifically the sound of my breath. When I notice thoughts arising, I gently bring my attention back to the sound of breathing (pro tip: earplugs help you hear the breath and get out of your head).

“Sometimes this meditation works. Sometimes it doesn’t. If I’m still caught in negative thinking after 15 or 20 minutes, I follow the advice from cognitive behavioural therapy, and get up, turn on dim light and read.

“This action may seem mundane, but at 3am it is powerfully compassionate, and can help draw you out of your unproductive thinking."

He added: “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 my opinion, not a great habit to get into.”

Greg Murray, Professor and Director, Centre for Mental Health, Swinburne University of Technology, Swinburne University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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