January 11, 2024 at 1:47 pm

Science Explains Why People Often Wake Up Around 3AM And Keep Doing It For Life

by Trisha Leigh

I imagine there are some blessed people out there who sleep through the night every night, never waking up because of a dream or anxiety or to use the bathroom or for no apparent reason at all.

If you’re not one of those people, you’ve probably noticed that you tend to wake up around the same time every night – but why?

The truth is that everyone wakes up several times a night. Our sleep comes in cycles, but for many people, they aren’t awake long enough to remember it – they just change positions and fall back to sleep.

For those under stress or who have more than their fair share of anxiety, waking in the middle of the night can turn into worry and catastrophizing, which then keeps them awake.

Source: iStock

Cognitive therapist Greg Murray says it’s definitely cause for concern.

“Waking and worrying at 3am is very understandable and very human. But in my opinion, not a great habit to get into. …add a bit of stress and there is a good chance that waking will become a fully self-aware state.”

Sleep psychologist Stephanie Romiszewski says there are other factors that could cause interrupted sleep, too, like a lack of routine, too much time indoors, or scrolling on your phone before bed.

“You’ll notice that if you’re waking up at the same time every day, that will start to become your regular time. Try to keep up with exercise and get bright light exposure in the mornings.  Make sure you have social time, too. We need our brains to understand the only opportunity to sleep will be the usual nighttime.”

Aneesa Das, who works for the Sleep Medicine Program at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, says the fact that the wakeups are generally between 3-4AM has a reasonable explanation.

“Throughout the night, our sleep cycles between rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep. Each stage of sleep has a different threshold for how easy it is to be woken up. One likely explanation for waking up at the same time each night is that you go to sleep at the same time and then, at the same time each night, you reach a light stage of sleep and wake up.”

Source: iStock

That said, scientists like Michael K Scullin of Baylor University admit that stress can lead to waking up more frequently, especially as morning draws nearer.

“Maybe it’s possible that some of this reflects waking from anxiety dreams. Scientists have suspected for about a hundred years now that unfinished tasks rest at a heightened level of activation in the brain until they can be completed.”

If you’re unable to sleep after waking up with a todo list running through your head, there is something you can do to help.

“Keeping a notepad by the bedside and writing out everything on your to-do list, as well as any other worries or stressors circulating in your mind, has been shown to help.

Professor Colin Espie’s practice of “putting the day to rest” would agree, so there may be something to it.

“When people wake up during the night the thing that comes to mind that may worry them is usually quite predictable. That is, something that has been happening the previous day or something that’s coming up the next day.”

Source: iStock

All of this may be normal, but experts do encourage you to see a doctor if it’s been happening regularly for at least three months.

“After three months, any kind of sleep problem can become habitual, like a pattern for your brain. At that point, no amount of getting rid of the original trigger is going to get rid of the problem. You may get rid of the stress, for example, but the sleep issue can remain.”

We all know how important good sleep is for your mental and physical health.

Especially if you’ve got a bit list to tackle in the morning.