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Why Is Waking Up In Fear So Common?

Why Is Waking Up In Fear So Common?

In folklore, the “witching hour” is a time of night that is associated with supernatural events. Between about 3:00 and 4:00 am, it’s said that ghosts, ghouls, and witches are at their most powerful. Whether or not you believe in folklore, you might wonder why the lull hours of the night are often associated with waking up in anxiety or fear. Here are some psychological reasons that may explain why—plus strategies to reduce this effect from our sleep specialist.

What’s Happening in Our Bodies in the Middle of the Night?

In a normal night’s sleep, our neurobiology reaches a turning point around 3:00 and 4:00 am. Core body temperature starts to rise, sleep drive starts reducing, secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin has peaked, and levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) are increasing as the body prepares to launch us into a new day.

Interestingly, we wake up several times each night, and light sleep is more common in the second half of the night. When we are in a state of quality sleep, 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.

Stress Only Makes Things Worse

Whether it’s 3:00 am or 8:00 am, our defenses are down when we wake up. This means we’re much more vulnerable to an ambush of negative thoughts. These thoughts, if not properly managed, could lead to anxiety. It’s important to recognize stress during our waking hours and learn how to cope with it. If we don’t attempt to manage stress, our sleep may suffer.

Anxiety originates in the amygdala, a section of the brain that regulates emotions. One of the amygdala’s jobs is to register danger. When it identifies a threat, it mobilizes the body into “fight or flight” mode to help us combat the danger or run to safety. Your heart starts pounding and critical thinking may become impaired. Unfortunately, the amygdala cannot distinguish between an immediate danger and perceived danger—it activates the same physiological responses either way. The result? Waking up and immediately worrying about your day, or other chronic stressors in your life, can jolt your amygdala into “fight or flight,” and that, in turn, leads to anxiety.

How Can We Reduce Stress and Improve Sleep?

Dr. Chris Hammond is a Neurologist and Sleep Expert at Ogden Clinic. He says that there are several things we tend to do before bed that are inhibiting melatonin production and quality sleep. Here are his top tips for working with our own biology to improve sleep.

Put Away Your Phone

You might opt for an old-fashioned alarm clock if you’re tempted to scroll on your phone before bed.

The light from a phone screen inhibits endogenous melatonin production and, depending on what you’re reading, being on your phone could exacerbate stress if you’re refreshing work emails or wandering down rabbit holes.

Create a Conducive Sleep Environment

Did you know the temperature of your room has a big impact on sleep quality? A cooler room (ideally 67 degrees) promotes body temperature regulation. Create an environment that’s dark and free of noise. If noise is unavoidable, consider white noise production.

Dr. Hammond also encourages patients to mentally associate their bed with sleep. “If possible, don’t hang out in your bed. Avoid mentally equating your bed as a place of worries, news, or drama.”

Get the Jitters Out

Get your steps in during the day, but not too close to bedtime if you struggle to wind down. Avoid large meals and alcohol three hours before bed. Refrain from drinking caffeine after about 2:00 pm. And although it may be difficult, do not take long naps during the day, which will throw off your natural sleep cycle.

If you live with persistent stress, anxiety, or sleep-related problems, get help. Schedule a visit with your primary care physician or consider visiting a specialist. Ogden Clinic has a fully integrated Sleep Medicine Specialty that assists in the diagnosis and treatment of sleep-related issues such as insomnia, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea.