What is waking you up at 3am? (Or keeping you awake at this time)

It’s things counting sheep aren’t going to fix.


Generally speaking, unless you are ill or (getting) up for work or catching an early flight, there aren’t too many legitimate reasons for being up at 3am, save a good night out. Even then, however, nursing the effects of a late night can throw you out a day or two, but what happens when this becomes a regular occurrence?


The three (3) main factors for good health are sleep, diet and exercise. A significant amount of people’s anxiety and depression are tied to (at least one of) the above factors. Obviously, I’m focusing on sleep/wake patterns in this post, but the other two factors are also important. There are also going to be serious sleep problems beyond the scope of this article – probably doesn’t need saying, but I felt I’d mention this anyway.


So, why are you waking up/being awake this early on a regular basis? Human beings are diurnal creatures, not nocturnal, we are designed to function during the day and sleep during the night – not the other way around. This forms part of the reason why working night shift regularly for years actually shortens your expected life span and increases the likelihood of other health issues (e.g. cardiovascular, obesity, mood changes). This disruption to the natural circadian rhythm is not something to be dismissed lightly, but frequently seems to be.


Locating the source of problems can be a difficult task at the best of times, but more so when it comes to sleep. There are a plethora of causes for disrupted sleep patterns, but one that a lot of people could empathise with is stress/anxiety/worry – something on your mind that is of concern. Now, I’m not referring to one-offs relating to being on edge over something like a job interview/review/promotion, that is fairly specific and short-term. I’m talking about the more persistent causes that can be (but not always) more generalised in their origin.


A good five-step plan on how to deal with stressors: awareness (I have a problem), specify (locate source), understand (what is it and why), process (acknowledge problem and mentally plan a solution), action (put in place and carry out behavioural change).


I find that waking up at 3am is usually more stress/anxiety/panic related whereas being unable to get to sleep or laying wide awake can be stress induced, but also tends to be depressive in nature or an (over)active mind. Clock watching does not improve the situation neither. I find it really important to set yourself up for sleep in the evening – unwind, do relaxing activities, preferably not on an illuminated screen, having ate 2-3 hours beforehand, having a written down schedule for tomorrow (so you’re not thinking about it or trying to remember it as you try to sleep). Setting a similar wake up time in the morning is also crucial, even more crucial than a similar good night time.


The effects from poor sleep are numerous, but some of the main ones are a decrease in cognitive functioning and performance, negative effects to emotional/stress responsiveness and capacity, and overall quality of life.


People who suffer from poor sleep sometimes have some form of coping mechanism in place e.g. stimulant in the morning, afternoon nap. I ask again, however, what is the source of your disrupted sleep? Your coping mechanisms maybe geared around your bad sleep patterns but not what is actually causing them i.e. they don’t actually prevent bad sleep from happening, if anything they might maintain them or act as a Band-Aid to a wound that needs better treatment.


There may be some positive reinforcement keeping you doing this behaviour. Given how global and interactive our society has become, New York is not the only place that never sleeps. Online communities are there whenever you wish to access them. Sometimes the people they meet in these communities are the only “good people” they have in their lives and/or are awake at this time. What can develop from this is a subtle affirmation to be up at this time of night i.e. I can chat to these people at 3am (my time) so it’s “good” to be awake at this time – and people will be resistant to give that up or see it as a fault.


Diet and exercise can also impact your sleep. As I mentioned before, I try not to eat anything within 2-3 hours of going to sleep. I do not consume stimulants or caffeinated products after midday as a general rule. I no longer do evening workouts. Alcohol and substance use will have an effect on your ability to get off to and maintain sleep.



As I said in the subtitle, there are things which counting sheep aren’t going to fix. It definitely won’t fix your deteriorating marriage. Saying to yourself, “I’m going to go to bed by 10pm”, this is not going to change your concerns over your employment status. I’m not a fool. I know perfectly well the amount of difficulty, stress and hard times people can and are going through. What you want to do is try and give yourself the best shot at living a life with the least amount of suffering and the greatest capability and capacity to deal with its adversities.


Write down your thoughts, dreams and problems. Talk to people about what is going on in your life, preferably in-person if you can. Seek professional help if you are feeling overwhelmed, fatigued and/or stressed – talk to your doctor or therapist. Always try and eliminate biological causes first before working on potential psychological roots to your sleeping woes.


Please place an emphasis on the quality of something that takes up approximately one third of your life...and I say all this as a former night owl turned early bird.
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