The bad thing you said to a close relative who passed soon after. The career-altering mistake you made. The one that got away — or rather, left because you messed up. Why are these the thoughts that bounce off the inside of your skull when you wake up at 2 a.m. — instead of, for example, thinking about that rerun you fell asleep to? And more generally, why does late-night sleeplessness so often come with a side order of panic-inducing regret and despair?
According to clinical psychologist and sleep researcher Damon Ashworth, it has a lot to do with your circadian rhythm, the internal clock that keeps you on the same 24-hour cycle each day — the one that makes you instinctively stick to regular-ish eating and sleeping times. Each person’s individual rhythm functions somewhat uniquely, but overall, most of us are on pretty similar cycles.
Since humans aren’t nocturnal creatures, our species has evolved to work best during the daytime, when our cognitive functioning is at its peak. “Because we’re busy during the day with work and technology, there isn’t much time to sit and think,” says Ashworth. In the middle of the night, though, when cognitive functioning is lessened, “Your prefrontal cortex — which controls your attention — is impaired.” Ashworth cites the renowned psychologist Daniel Goleman, who claimed, “An unfocused mind is a worried mind.” And since you can’t focus as well at 2 a.m., you tend to worry, and your brain naturally gravitates to those issues that remain unresolved.
This difficulty in focusing at night can have much more dire consequences than just that 2 a.m. malaise, however. “Most car accidents, relative to people on the road, occur between 3 a.m. and 6 a.m.,” says Ashworth, explaining that humans’ inability to focus in the wee morning hours can lead to a variety of accidents, including falling down stairs and workplace injuries. He also believes this plays a part in why there’s a generally increased risk of death between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m., as people’s functioning simply isn’t what it is during the day.
Technology, too, is a tremendous distraction. For those who may have depressive thoughts during the day, the first means of escape is typically to dive down an internet rabbit hole — even though this doesn’t help: One study at the University of Illinois found that those who used technology as a means to escape depression only find their depression exacerbated by the experience.
So what to do about it? Ashworth offers a few strategies for rerouting your late night ruminations. “Try writing down anything that might come up [that you might be worried about] before going to bed,” he says. “I call it constructive worry.” While he warns that this may not eliminate the worrying as such, it may help mitigate the symptoms of it, because you’re more prepared (and focused) for what’s coming.
If that doesn’t work, or if something comes up that you didn’t anticipate, Ashworth says it helps to find yourself an anchor to focus your mind on. “Listen to music or your favorite podcast, or perhaps try a mindfulness exercise,” he advises. These can be as simple as taking deep breaths and focusing on the breaths to help pull you away from dark thoughts. Or you could perhaps try a body scan, where you mentally go from head to toe, focusing on each body part and the sensations it’s feeling. These techniques will hopefully help you bring your attention back from those unsettling thoughts.
If none of those work, and you’re losing sleep over your lack of sleep, Ashworth recommends getting some professional help. “If these thoughts are starting to cause someone significant distress or functional impairment, it would be important for them to see their doctor or get a referral to see a mental health expert who could help them.”
After all, if you’re going down the same rabbit hole every time you wake up in the night, it might be time to learn the tools to dig your way out.