4am brain is a thing: here's what you can do when it strikes

Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK
Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK 

One minute you're in a deep slumber and then, bam, you're wide-awake. You toss and turn and can't get back to sleep.

Then it happens – your brain starts to wander. I call it 4am brain and it's not your best friend. In fact, it's the complete opposite. It starts to tell you all the 'terrible' things about your personality, it reminds you of all the times you failed and it points out all your flaws. It fills you with dread and worry.

Don't fret – if this happens to you, you're not alone. Waking in the night occasionally and being consumed with negative thoughts is normal.

However, if you're regularly finding it hard to sleep and your thoughts are increasingly distressing it's vital to chat to a professional as you could have chronic insomnia, anxiety or depression.

Unfortunately, for many parents, waking in the night and going over your long to-do lists and questioning your life goals is a common pitfall of the job.

For me, it's simply a case of having too much on my plate – three kids, a husband, a dog, work and life maintenance – it can all get overwhelming. When everything's busy at once, my brain goes into overdrive and that's when I find myself awake and staring at the ceiling at 4am.

According to the Sleep Health Foundation, most people will experience insomnia in their lifetime, with at least 10 per cent of people experiencing mild insomnia at any given time. Women are also twice as likely than men to suffer from insomnia, which isn't surprising when you take into consideration the additional amount of life chores they take on.

4am brain 'grossly exaggerates' 

Pauline McKinnon, psychotherapist and founder of Stillness Meditation, agrees insomnia is a common problem.

"If you're caught up in negative thoughts or chronic worry during the day, certainly these are most likely to re-emerge if you're tossing and turning during the night," Ms McKinnon said.

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"If we can become – and generally remain – calm and positive in our active life, we are less likely to generate negative thoughts, ideas and imaginings to occupy the mind when wakefulness occurs."

Learning some relaxation techniques and talking to someone about your worries will help put a stop to sleeplessness, but if it still happens remember not to believe everything your sleepy brain tells you. 

"I think the 4am brain grossly exaggerates," she said.

"Yes, it's possible to become distressed and anxious over the many thoughts that run wildly in the early hours of morning.  

"Remember, once we're truly awake and in 'normal' functioning mode, usually we can look back at the nocturnal worries and wonder just why we were so upset." 

Relaxation techniques are key

She suggests before going to bed each night you try to work through any outstanding problems, turn your television and other devices off one hour prior, drink a warm cup of herbal tea and spend 30 minutes meditating, listening to calming music, doing some yoga or going for a gentle walk. 

And if you do wake in the night, and have trouble getting back to sleep, try writing down your concerns so you can deal with them when you're fully awake, have a warm glass of milk, take some deep breaths and make a decision to replace all negative thoughts with positive intentions.

A modern sleeplessness epidemic

Clinical psychologist, and founder of the anxiety and sleep apps Anxiety Release and Sleep Restore, Mark Grant said when you wake in the early hours of the morning feeling tense or worried it's a sign your nervous system is over-stimulated.

"The reason that people tend to wake up in the early hours of the morning is that as the night progresses the sleep cycle oscillates towards wakefulness, making it easier for the nervous system to punch through the barrier of sleep," Mr Grant said.

"Either way night-waking is on the rise as part of a modern sleeplessness epidemic due to the increased pressures of modern life and an increasing tendency for sleep to be regarded as a waste of time that has to be squeezed into a busy schedule."

And for parents, in particular, they're under immense pressure to provide for their children's physical and emotional wellbeing. And many are still dealing with the lingering impact and anxiety of a baby waking them repeatedly throughout the night. 

"Parents worry at night because it is often the only quiet time they have after a hectic day getting the children off to school, going to work, coming home, feeding, bathing and putting the children to bed," he said.

"The brain's worry circuit, something called the Default Mode Network, is quiet when we are busy, but comes on-line when our minds are not engaged with other tasks. For working parents, this is often late at night when they should be relaxing and getting ready for sleep."

For many parents, your brain decides to deal with problems in middle of the night.

"Don't worry or get angry with your 4am brain – it's just your nervous system doing what it's programmed to do – trying to overcome life's challenges," he said.

"Have another look at the situations that are keeping you awake – are these things that you have any control? If not, it may be better just to relax your expectations of yourself and accept you are doing your best and that's enough."

If you need help with insomnia, see a qualified health professional, such as your GP or a psychologist.