The 3am Worry-Vortex

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You’re certainly not alone if you wake up literally nightly at 3am when you’re feeling under intense stress.

Waking up with a gasp because your brain had just remembered something that you “should” be worried about – something you haven’t completed, something you still needed to begin, something you have been procrastinating on, something you were nervous about on your agenda the next day…

And of course, that sends off a string of anxious thoughts, with increasing cortisol waking up your sympathetic nervous system as your heart starts beating faster, and your brain begins whirring with distinctly unhelpful scenarios playing out before you.

Yes, 3am catastrophising is very real, and very common. There are a number of reasons why people wake up in the night, and stress is most certainly one of them, especially in the age of Corona with our lives turned upside down, and uncertainty around every corner.[1]

There is a litany of strategies out there for “sleep hygiene” (warm milk, no phones, get out of bed), but the following two are firm favourites that I have researched and practice myself, and certainly recommend you try – whether at 3am or in any other time of need:  

Applying the FOG Filter

Pause for a second and really get clear on what it is that you are worrying about, or what thought it is exactly that is creating this stress reaction in your body. Then, apply the FOG filter – is this thought a Fact, an Opinion, or a Guess?

If it’s objectively a Fact – for example, you should have handed in something with a strict deadline and you haven’t – then this is your opportunity to stop worrying about what hasn’t actually happened yet, and start devising a plan. What exactly do you need to do as your first next step to make sure this gets done? Physically write it down. This allows you to take some control back, and know that you have started the process of completing the task.

If it’s an Opinion – for example, if someone gave you negative feedback and you’re stewing over it – then take a moment to explore it. Argue the for and against of this opinion. Why does this opinion matter to you? Would you usually seek out this person’s opinion on matters? And if you recognise that it’s your own opinion about something, then argue an opposing view, or put yourself in the shoes of your best friend or mentor – what might they say?  

If it’s a Guess – for example, you are assuming that your annual review discussion tomorrow is going to be difficult – then examine the story that you are telling yourself. Our brain is finetuned to protect us, and naturally gravitates towards the negative, but just as we can imagine a negative outcome, we can also imagine a positive outcome. After all, it’s just the story we are telling ourselves, and we are indeed the author.

This examination of our thoughts allows us to become that little more detached from a particular catastrophisation, and allows us to see different views and alternatives. This distancing can allow us to take back some control we may feel we have lost, and bring back some rationality and calmness.

Mindfulness Meditation

When we worry about something, it is fear about a possible outcome in the future. This is the funny thing about fear – it is the story we are telling ourselves about something that hasn’t actually happened yet.

So instead of looking into our blurry crystal ball and creating stress and sleeplessness, bring your brain back to the present moment. Not your interpretations about what happened in the past, or the stories you tell yourself about what might happen in the future.

What is happening right now?

Breathing.

Focusing on your breathing is brilliant if it’s stress or worry waking you up in the night. Your sympathetic nervous system is what has woken you up (the “fight or flight” system of the brain), and mediation activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows down the heartrate, blood pressure and breathing.

Breathing out a little longer than you breathe in also assists this process, as the vagus nerve that runs down your neck and through the diaphragm tells your brain to activate the parasympathetic nervous system as well.

Thoughts may still bubble up to the surface, and that’s ok – notice them with non-judgement, and then get right back to focusing on your breathing.

So give these two techniques a try next time you find yourself spiralling into a worry-vortex – practice takes time and a little effort, but the reward is a wonderful night’s sleep. Doesn’t that sound worth it?

[1] Always see your doctor if you suspect ongoing and / or serious issues with your health!

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