3 AM thoughts – The secret to defeating anxiety and sleeping well.

You know those nights? The ones where you wake up in the dark and the world seems like a horrifying and scary place? You find yourself brooding, reliving arguments, planning possible fights, stressing, worrying, and generally trying to figure out how your life got so miserable. And no matter how you think about it, it just seems bleak and overwhelming and impossible.


“Thinking 3 AM thoughts in the 3 AM dark,
Am I listening to my heartbeat of the ticking of the clock?”

I call these moments “3 AM thoughts” after the line in this fantastic song:

Here’s a nugget of wisdom that will change your world. When you find yourself in this place, take a look at the thoughts you’re thinking and IGNORE THEM!

What do I mean by this?

There are a few steps to explain, but the result will free you from this nightmare entirely and help you get a deep and relaxing night sleep.

Defeating those thoughts – Step 1

First, you have to recognize that these thoughts are guaranteed to be wrong.

Recognizing of course that sometimes you wake up and have a great idea or a wonderful dream; I’m not talking about those situations. The case where your 3 AM thoughts are all dark is a mental state in which you must realize that every thought is simply untrue.

I can’t convince you of this just by saying it so here’s an experiment for you to try:

Experiment:

  1. Next time you’re having 3 AM thoughts, pause to think about how dark the world seems. See how you have no options? How few possibilities you can think of? How you have no hope? And generally how profoundly everything sucks. See the hopelessness of it all, really pay attention to the fact that nothing is okay. If you can pick a topic and think about how hopeless it seems. Really focus on it, notice it, explore it, and remember it.
  2. The next day, or the day after, or whenever you’re back to a normal waking state, think about the same topic and notice how much better it all seems.

What you will find is that the stuff you were thinking at 3 AM was, quite simply, crazy! Often you just won’t even be able to remember why it was so bad. Sometimes you’ll remember some of the thoughts and notice that they’re just bizarre, detached from reality.

This can range from “didn’t really make sense” all the way to “I had a genuine fear I’d soon be homeless/worthless”. Sometimes it’s even “I contemplated suicide for a moment over stupid shit”. These thoughts can be deeply toxic but it’s important for you to realize that they’re also just crazy. This realization is key; I spent YEARS lost in them myself before I had the presence of mind to pay attention and start seeing how crazy they were.

So the thoughts are crazy

Why does it matter that these thoughts are crazy? Because, when you start to recognize, truly recognize, how crazy they are, you can start to ignore them.

You can’t control whether you have these thoughts. In this case the mind is like the weather and you have to learn to regard this as a 3 AM hurricane. You can’t predict or avoid it, but you can learn to just batten down and ignore it. And you can give yourself tools to do so.

After you’ve done this experiment, the next time you’re hit with 3 AM thoughts, remind yourself that all this stuff is bullshit. Look at those thoughts and know that they’re crazy. So you can ignore them.

That seems simple, but it’s actually incredibly powerful. Of course, it likely won’t work the very first time. If you pay attention though, it will get better every time. Each time pay attention to the thought, and then notice the next morning how truly crazy it was.

After this has happened enough times you gain confidence even in the middle of the night that the thoughts are just crazy. In the dark you don’t know how it’s true, but you know it will be better in the morning because the last 20 times it was. Then the last 50, and the last 100. After a while, each time the storm comes is just another chance to become more confident that these thoughts are crazy. Every time you do this, ignoring the thoughts gets easier.

For anyone who meditates this is a great chance to practice as well. The goal here is to separate yourself from the thought-storm as much as possible and let it rage until it dies. Meditation does a massive amount to help you get better at not getting caught up in these thoughts, and you can use that 3 AM time to try to meditate; you’re not doing anything useful anyway, right?

Meditate or not though, whatever you do, just keep reminding yourself that these thoughts are wrong, inaccurate, and unreasonable, and while you can’t currently see how or why, you know it’s true. The more you do this, and the more you step back from the thoughts, the more you’ll be able to let go of them and suffer less.

A Doubt

“But what about if these thoughts are actually helpful? What if I think up the perfect answer to an argument, or the genius thing to say in that conversation, or finally find the perfect words, the perfect solution, the perfect answer, the secret to life! If I ignore all these thoughts I’d miss that!”

Bullshit. First, I’d refer you back to the above experiment. If the above argument seems reasonable to you, repeat this experiment a few more times and notice just how crazy, awful, and wrong your thoughts are in these moments. Notice that your thinking is irrational. It’s literally unconnected from reality!

Now I’m not saying that it could never result in something brilliant, but the chances of this are about the same as the chances that schizophrenic homeless guy under that bridge suddenly writing the first chapter of the Great American Novel. On his cardboard box house. Yes it’s possible, but I’m not holding my breath. Of course he’ll often think he did that, but if he gets back on his meds he’ll see otherwise.

Just like a schizophrenic, your brain at 3 AM is off its meds and way out in crazy-land. If you really think you’ll work your way to the answer to Life, the Universe and Everything then feel free! Think away. Pay attention though to how much you’re suffering as you do. Pay attention also to how much sleep you lose, how much more stressed you are, and how much more often the storm comes, and I think you’ll find, like I did, that when the world is dark at 3 AM you should distrust and ignore it. You’re not losing anything worth keeping.

Can I stop this?

Now that we’ve learned what this is and why you should ignore it, the next question is, can I stop this from happening at all? It seriously sucks after all; can we just not do this in the first place?

First, this process will help a great deal. When you learn to stop believing your mind on craziness, it often will stop being crazy quite so often.

In my experience you can’t stop such moments entirely though. Every now and then you’re just gonna have a sucky night and it’s worth being prepared for it. There are things that make a terrible night more likely though:

1. Alcohol

Alcohol is actually a stimulant. Yeah it’ll knock you out if you drink too much in the evening, but after the knock-out affect wears off the stimulant part takes over and you wake up and lie there, unable to do a thing about it. Alcohol also tend to make the mind a bit more depressive oriented (this effect can last up to two days!). This means that drinking alcohol is the perfect recipe to make yourself wake up at 3 AM miserable. I personally found that my sensitivity to this increased greatly in the vicinity of age 30. Regardless of when though note how often these nights follow alcohol and consider cutting back or cutting it out.

2. Lack of exercise

This one’s obvious; you don’t get enough exercise you won’t sleep so well. If you’re having 3 AM thought-storms consider increasing your activity levels.

3. Stress/Anger

If certain events in your life have increased your stress or anger levels then your 3 AM thoughts may take the form of the conventional “keeping me up at night” dynamic. In this case the above recipe is more important to help you understand that those 3 AM thoughts aren’t actually helping you solve your problems and meditating or doing whatever you can to get out of these thought cycles is essential. Additionally, working with your life circumstances, friends, family, a therapist, and any other general anger or stress reduction activities you can undertake will help.

4. Depression

These kind of things can easily combine with and/or slide toward depression, in which case you should consider finding a qualified therapist or counselor and seeking help. (future article yet to come on therapy and finding a therapist)

Conclusion

With luck you’ll be one of those people who never has this experience in life, but for the rest of us, here’s to learning to tell those 3 AM thoughts where to go, and sleeping the night soundly through!


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