Why you always wake up worrying at 3am – and how to stop it

THE clock strikes 3am and it appears half the sleeping world wakes up in a jolt of panic.

Pre-dawn worrying can leave you with the darkest of thoughts at a time no one is there to offload to.

Everything that you're slightly worried about in life suddenly comes to the forefront of your mind and won’t go away, causing you to spiral further into anxiety. 

Sound familiar?

Greg Murray, professor and director of the Centre for Mental Health, Swinburne University of Technology, suggests this nocturnal problem is not uncommon.

And there are biological reasons to explain the habit. 

“In a normal night’s sleep, our neurobiology reaches a turning point around 3am or 4am,” he explains in a piece for the Conversation.

“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, and levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) are increasing as the body prepares to launch us into the day.”

We wake up at various stages throughout the night, but there is something about 3am-4am that makes us stay awake.

The second half of the night is composed of more light sleeping than the first.

“Add a bit of stress and there is a good chance that waking will become a fully self-aware state,” Prof Murray said.

Other reasons for a 3am calling could include sleep disorders, like insomnia and sleep apnoea.

If you’re having concerns about being awake when you “should” be asleep, or feeling hypervigilant about being awake, you may have insomnia, Prof Murray said.

Medications and conditions like depression, restless leg syndrome and acid reflux can also interfere with sleep patterns, Healthline says.

Prof Murray said in the hours before dawn, we are more likely to end up “catastrophising”.

He said: “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.

“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.”

In comparison, once the sun is up and you’re having breakfast, problems seem more manageable.

How can you stop 3am worrying?

Stopping 3am worrying can become a bit of a vicious cycle, because the more your stress about being awake, the harder it may be to get back to sleep.

Prof Murray suggests some breathing techniques – and uses them himself.

He says: “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.”

Many sleep experts recommend that if you are struggling to sleep, you should not stay in bed tossing and turning.

The Sleep Foundation says if your sleeping problems are severe, long-term, or worsening, it’s important to see a doctor who can work with you to try to identify a cause and recommend optimal treatment.

How to relax and go back to sleep

Try these three relaxation techniques from the Sleep Foundation to help you ease back into a slumber.

Pranayamic breathing

  1. Inhale slowly and gently through your nose.
  2. Exhale slowly and gently through your mouth.
  3. Count up. You can count each breath or each cycle of inhalation and exhalation,, whichever comes more naturally to you.

Progressive muscle relaxation

  1. With your eyes closed, slowly breathe in and out.
  2. Starting with your face, tense your muscles (lips, eyes, jaw) for 10 seconds, then release your muscles and breathe deeply in and out for several seconds.
  3. Tense your shoulders for 10 seconds and then relax and breathe.
  4. Continue tensing and relaxing the following body parts, skipping any area where tensing the muscles causes pain:
    • Shoulders
    • Upper arms
    • Lower arms and hands
    • Back
    • Stomach
    • Buttocks
    • Hamstrings
    • Calves
    • Feet


  1. With your eyes closed and in a comfortable position, think about a place or experience in your past that feels relaxing, such as a quiet natural setting.
  2. While slowly breathing in and out, reflect on the details of this setting and how it looks.
  3. Continue focusing on this image by adding details relating to your other senses (smell, sound, taste, touch) and experiencing the calmness of this mental imagery.

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