309: Middle of the Night Panic

309: Middle of the Night Panic

Brain Junk
309: Middle of the Night Panic

Nighttime waking and scattered thoughts are problem solving’s evil twin. If you find yourself awake at 3 am obsessing over your problems, remember that stress and hormonal imbalances can really damage the quality of your sleep.

Show Notes:

IFL Science: Why Do We Wake Around 3am And Dwell On Our Fears And Shortcomings?

VeryWellmind.com: Military Sleep method

Science Direct: Molecular Clock

US Southwestern University: Understanding the circadian clocks of individual cells

Wikipedia: Suprachiasmatic nucleus

NIH: Visual impairment and circadian rhythm disorders

The New Yorker: The Woman who Spent Five Hundred Days in a Cave

Benadryl and Alzheimer’s possible link


[00:00:03] Speaker A: Welcome to Brain Junk, I’m Trace Kerr

[00:00:05] Speaker B: And I’m Amy Barton. And today I’m gonna continue changing your lives because we’ve talked about how to up your personal hygiene game. And today I’m gonna tell you about why you wake up at 03:00 a.m. And give you some tips and tricks.

[00:00:19] Speaker A: To stop that from happening.

[00:00:21] Speaker B: Yeah.

[00:00:24] Speaker A: I am not a 03:00 a.m. Wake up person, so this will be interesting.

[00:00:27] Speaker B: You’re not what it.

[00:00:29] Speaker A: No.

[00:00:29] Speaker B: Do you wake up in the night?

[00:00:30] Speaker A: No, I’m not a wake upper.

[00:00:32] Speaker B: Oh, that’s interesting. Well, Chris and I both are, and I tend to. On a good night, I just wake up once. But oftentimes I will wake up in this somewhere between two and 04:00 a.m.. Time. And so we’re both like, why is that happening to us? And some of it is Shelby the cat.

She seems to get the zoomies. So let’s back up, too. Greg Murray, professor and director, center for Mental Health in Sweden, Swinburne University of Technology. Swin. Yeah, Swinburne University of Technology.

He’s a psychology researcher, and his expertise is in mood and sleep and circadian systems. Oh, and so he talks about this in an article for IFL science. For those of you who don’t wake up like trace, it’s bad because in the middle of the night, all of the thoughts seem to be. It’s never like, I was so good in that meeting today, and I just love these blankets, and it’s not that stuff. It’s distressing and punitive thoughts, and they’re irrational and unproductive. If you are alert enough that you have awoken, usually some people, it might not be that way, but it’s definitely the way my brain works. It will worry about everything and anything. Like, I don’t know, if we fill the ice cube trays up enough, they’re gonna be so hard to get out.

[00:01:49] Speaker A: Laying there at 03:00 a.m. Did I lock the front door?

[00:01:52] Speaker B: Yeah, that’s not my job, so I don’t worry about that one. I assume Chris does it. It’s not an official division of labor. It’s just an observed division of labor.

So we could die in our sleep because I don’t check.

Someone could break in and get us, but I’m pretty sure he does. So, yeah.

Back to our bodies at 03:00 a.m. What’s going on there? The easiest way for me to think about it is when you get into a boat and you’re getting up to speed for a skier, full throttle. Then you sort of even out. And then at 03:00 a.m. You’re getting ready to come into the dock. And so you’re throttling back. That throttling back is your core body temperature starts to rise. Your sleep drive is reducing because you’ve had a big chunk of sleep. Your body’s like, well, we should dial it back here. Your secretion of melatonin is subsiding. It’s peaked. It’s done. And your levels of cortisol are so melatonin down, cortisol up, because you’re facing the day and your body’s gearing up. So it’s a very transitional time for your body, which makes a lot of sense. Why some of us like somebody that’s not good at a manual transmission car. Maybe that’s what’s happening with my body.

You have a smooth automatic and I have a 16 year old driving a manual transmission.

Yeah, it’s exactly like, oh, I killed it. I’m sorry.

[00:03:14] Speaker A: Oh, no. Now here’s the question, though. If, because it’s probably, like you said, it’s a physiological cycle, right? So if you go to bed at 10:00 p.m. Is it, is it like two? If you went to bed at midnight, would it be like three? Does it?

[00:03:30] Speaker B: That’s a good question. So here. Here’s to answer. I didn’t look that up, actually.

[00:03:34] Speaker A: Well, I just meant for you, like, do you notice?

[00:03:37] Speaker B: No, I can if I get less sleep. I’m probably sleeping a little longer into the night and I get through till about 05:00 a.m.. Yes. So for me, it does shift a little. If I go to bed real late, I can move it. It still doesn’t pay because if I go to bed real late, it’s like Friday night and I wanted to sleep till 730 and I’m not going to still.

So that’s sad. How is your body doing this? Why? And all of you are like, it’s circadian rhythms. And you’re right. Ten points. But I thought it’s been. I just know the word circadian rhythms and I really don’t think a lot about what’s happening and how your body has this cycle of preparing you for what’s going to happen. It’s going to prepare you for activity and for sleep and for eating.

[00:04:23] Speaker A: Huh.

[00:04:24] Speaker B: Are you having a thought?

[00:04:25] Speaker A: I am having a thought, but I didn’t want to interrupt.

[00:04:26] Speaker B: Okay. Do you want to have it now or do you want me to go on?

[00:04:29] Speaker A: Yeah. Let me have my thought.

[00:04:30] Speaker B: Okay.

[00:04:32] Speaker A: So Chaz and all of the men in his family, as they get older, wake up earlier and earlier.

[00:04:39] Speaker B: Mm hmm.

[00:04:40] Speaker A: He used to be, like, a five. Now he’s a four. If he’s really stressed out, 330. And here’s the thing. If I do wake up, I go, well, I’m awake, but I’m not getting up. And I stubborn myself back to sleep.

[00:04:52] Speaker B: Yeah.

[00:04:52] Speaker A: He wakes up and gets up. It’s almost freaky. He’s awake and he’s out of bed, and he’s gone, and he starts the day.

[00:04:59] Speaker B: So he’s got 16 year old with an automatic transmission with maybe some cognitive things happening there.

[00:05:05] Speaker A: Yeah. And he can’t get back to sleep. It’s almost like an insomnia sort of issue, except it’s that early morning. So that thing where you would wake up at three and go, well, we’re committed until five. He goes, I’m just gonna get up.

[00:05:17] Speaker B: Yeah, I will get up, go to the bathroom, try to fall back to sleep, and usually succeed. We’re gonna talk about circadian rhythms a little bit, and then I’ll talk about what might be happening there.

[00:05:26] Speaker A: Ooh.

[00:05:26] Speaker B: Fake doctor Amy will address that.

[00:05:28] Speaker A: Thank you, fake doctor Amy. You’re so smart.

[00:05:33] Speaker B: Without any primary sources, it’s amazing. Okay. Almost all living organisms do have biological clocks like us, which isn’t surprising. But I didn’t think of, back then, bacteria and fungi among that and plants. And in humans, our biological clocks coordinate, like I said earlier, our behaviors, like sleeping and mood and eating and cognition, our physiology, like our metabolism and our hormones and our blood pressure and our body temperature. The body clock even coordinates individual cell function, which is wild, like DNA repair and cell cycle. And that allows our body to function all together and work properly as a team. Yeah. So what I didn’t realize was that this is at that cellular level, and each cell has its own molecular clock. And the region of the brain that’s responsible for all this is the suprachiasmatic nucleus. So we’re going to call that the master clock. So I don’t have to say that again, because.

And immediately, all the sources I looked at reverted to master clock as well.

But that’s what makes all of these parts in our bodies, these all of everything, sync up and connect all of the circadian rhythm like we talked about. You could go in a cave. And, yes, scientists have done this with no environmental cues. Your body will still follow a roughly 24 hours cycle. A little more a little less. Depending on you, it will become desynchronized from the environment. So a blind person could potentially over months and years become very desynchronized if they don’t have the visual cues. So they, I believe they have to create cues in other ways for themselves to stay synced.

[00:07:14] Speaker A: Right. Cause I was thinking of the gal who was in the cave for 500 days.

[00:07:20] Speaker B: Oh, my gosh. Yeah.

[00:07:21] Speaker A: And she did get all like she thought it was less time. Like she didn’t think she’d been there that long and it changed her. So she got on her own kind of cycle and everything. But.

[00:07:36] Speaker B: Yeah, yeah.

[00:07:37] Speaker A: Cause you’re creating this different because if.

[00:07:39] Speaker B: You’Re 24 hours and 15 minutes, it does. She would be like a day off before too. Awfully long, I feel like.

[00:07:46] Speaker A: Right?

[00:07:47] Speaker B: Yes. Yeah. And so can you imagine coming out of that and trying to sync back up with the natural world? I wonder how long it took for her to feel like she could fit in the world again. That would be weird.

[00:07:58] Speaker A: Yeah, that would be interesting.

[00:08:00] Speaker B: So she probably did feel physically better. So that master clock in our bodies will integrate both what’s happening in your body and what’s happening around you. And so it integrates that light and dark and temperature changes for us to pull all of that together so that we aren’t all slightly wonky from the clock.

[00:08:21] Speaker A: Well, yeah. And then we’re putting this artificial schedule on there so that we all go to work at the same time or we all make it to the party at the same time and.

[00:08:30] Speaker B: Yeah. And that’s an interesting thing. I have found that I feel like I should go to bed at 930 but I’m really probably my better sleep. Nights are when I’m falling asleep around 1030 as long as I get enough sleep. So that’s been an interesting, since I’ve read this, I’ve been kind of looking at my own habits and I’m finding maybe I should shift a little.

[00:08:49] Speaker A: You’re like, oh, no, I’m doing this all wrong.

[00:08:51] Speaker B: Maybe. Yes, I was doing some things right, but. And for some of us, we actually have restless and wakeful periods throughout the night for many of us, because y’all know about REM cycles and those are happening. And so you have that where you’re closer to the surface, then you go back down and we’re just not aware of that potentially. So then you throw a little bit of stress and it’s easy for you to have that a thought flit through that brings you to alertness and that is the enemy here. And unsurprisingly, this increased during the pandemic. So for those of you who do have that moment of that stressful thought that snaps you out of it, it probably got worse in the pandemic because stress impacts so much, and insomnia will create some hypervigilance, and so you’ll jolt awake and PSA here. Public service announcement. I am told that insomnia does respond well to psychological treatments, if you can afford it.

[00:09:50] Speaker A: Ah, well, I will say, like, Beckett has some issues with insomnia. And the big thing from, you know, the people who were like, okay, here’s how you can try to fix this. Was not laying in bed awake.

[00:10:02] Speaker B: Yes.

[00:10:02] Speaker A: So, you know, we had this high school kid at the time who was up just wandering around the house.

[00:10:09] Speaker B: Only for 20 minutes, though, because they’re restarting the bedtime clock.

[00:10:13] Speaker A: Yep. In the middle of the night, wandering around doing stuff. Cause they’re like, I’m not tired. I’m not supposed to lay there. And I’m like, okay, I’m gonna trust.

[00:10:19] Speaker B: The process, but could you please not cook onions and garlic? Thanks.

[00:10:25] Speaker A: Oh, yeah.

[00:10:29] Speaker B: Yes. Yeah. So the author says your mind is partly right when it concludes, the problem is unsolvable at 03:00 a.m. Because you really don’t have the skills to deal with it when you’re in that situation. So. And our brain isn’t looking for a solution at 03:00 a.m.. Too. They cite, he says, science calls it problem solving. Evil twin is worry that nighttime. So it’s the flip side. This is like in those documentaries where they flip the picture and it’s a black and white reversed image. That’s what we need here.

So what can you do about this? Because you’re so. If you’re prone to this, it just happens to you. But you do have a little bit of control. And there are. There’s a ton of stuff on the Internet, and some of it, most of them. The biggest thing that I read that I hadn’t really heard a lot of is that these things can all work, but you need to practice something for a while before your brain learns it, and it becomes quicker and more natural. There is a military trick that I read that pilots and soldiers do because they have to get the sleep where they can. And so they need to be able to fall asleep in weird places quickly. And they do one of those. Have you ever done one of those body inventories where you sit in a comfortable place and you think about major muscle groups and you tense them, and then you loosen them. And so you have that experience of holding it tightly and then completely relaxing it. And so they start from the top of their head, and they imagine it really tight, and then they loosen it up, and they make it feel warm and pleasant, and they just move through their body.

[00:12:09] Speaker A: Somebody’s gonna crash their car. Stop it. Stop it.

[00:12:11] Speaker B: Yeah.

So if you get to do some sort of guided meditation like that, they’re delightful. And so soldiers will teach themselves to do that. But the article said it’s a practice that takes some learning. But once your brain has that pattern, it will be like, oh, we’re doing this. Okay. And it shuts you down again.

So that’s good. And finding a way to get rid of that worry. Buddhist informed mindfulness is another one that popped up quite a bit. The self is a fiction, and the fiction is the source of all distress.

[00:12:43] Speaker A: Wow, we got deep fast.

[00:12:45] Speaker B: So much. And they were careful to point out, sometimes meditation doesn’t work. Sometimes it does. You might, it might not hit for you.

[00:12:55] Speaker A: That’s true. When I’m anxious, meditation does not help. I just stew in my own. It’s like you put me in a pot of boiling water, and I’m just in there bubbling away, going, oh, wow, now I’m really thinking about everything. This is great.

[00:13:07] Speaker B: Yes. Yeah. So please don’t torture yourself with meditation if that’s not working for you. It might be a practice you could develop during overtime hours or. Yeah. When the stakes are high, though, it reverses it for me. So for my personal practice is to get my book out and try to restart the bedtime routine in my brain. It’s like a hard reboot.

[00:13:28] Speaker A: Oh, there you go.

[00:13:29] Speaker B: And that actually works pretty well for me. Once I got a kindle with the nice screen that doesn’t hurt your brain.

[00:13:36] Speaker A: Of course, then I can remember. Okay, so if you wake up and you’re reading and then you start to fall asleep and you drop it and it hits the floor, and then, like, boom. Okay, now I’m awake again. That was great.

[00:13:48] Speaker B: Yes, yes. That startle response, that is the worst part of this. If you can find some way to work through that startle and short circuit it. One of the tips that I also had never read but I hadn’t heard of, they say it’s important to convince yourself during daylight hours that you want to avoid catastrophic thinking. So kind of prepping yourself in the daytime that I’m going to be thinking about calm things and reminding yourself what your plan is and how long you plan to lay there versus getting up or doing your next thing. I like that thought, but I haven’t.

[00:14:24] Speaker A: Heard you now talk about. Because a lot of this is chemistry. Is people snacking on melatonin?

[00:14:30] Speaker B: Some of those things. They’re great. They do indeed do what they say they do, but then your body is like, oh, we have an external source. High five, buddy. I’m gonna let that process go. So then it will take a while for your body to realize, oh, this is me again. All right, I have to do what? So, Chris and I have that talk, and I have heard that antihistamines at bedtime, we call it riding the pink dragon, because it becomes so very needed and it’s hard to let go of.

[00:15:07] Speaker A: It’s like, ooh, let’s brush our teeth and do Benadryl shots.

[00:15:10] Speaker B: No, exactly. Yes. Because they’re sowing links to Alzheimer’s with that. So if you can find an alternative that would be healthier for you.

I hate to throw out healthy out there at people, but that one is literally, potentially problematic.

[00:15:27] Speaker A: Yes.

[00:15:28] Speaker B: There we go. So, sleep cycles. That’s why you wake up. The boat’s throttling back.

[00:15:32] Speaker A: I have too much cortisol.

[00:15:34] Speaker B: I can’t sleep. I’m just gonna run around upstairs for a minute. I’ll be right back.

[00:15:40] Speaker A: I’m feeling stressed out. This is how I cope with my insomnia.

I guess Becca could have been running around the house, and they were in high school. That would have been a real pain. Yeah.

[00:15:53] Speaker B: Yeah.

And now I wonder, for people that work night shifts or just naturally, like, I. This is not my sleep wake cycle. I would like to sleep at other times. I wonder if their body is integrating environmental cues less.

[00:16:10] Speaker A: Yeah. Either that, or, as I think I was doing some reading about this, because both of my kids do a night shift, and they’re just more inclined to be awake then and asleep at a different time.

They weren’t. They also, neither of them were nappers, so I think maybe they’ve just been weird since. It’s my fault. It’s my fault.

[00:16:32] Speaker B: Yeah.

[00:16:33] Speaker A: So there you go.

[00:16:33] Speaker B: It’s a genetic thing there. Their internal cues don’t tell them they need naps.

[00:16:39] Speaker A: I don’t know. They’re a mess. The master clock broken.

[00:16:44] Speaker B: All it takes is one part.

[00:16:48] Speaker A: Oh, man.

[00:16:51] Speaker B: So, hopefully, it has been interesting knowing some of these things like that, that startle aspect. And so if I feel myself drifting awake now at that time of night, I will be very intentional about what I think about to try not to have that. When are you going to do your taxes, thought, because it’s all over once that hits.

[00:17:14] Speaker A: Yeah. No doom spiraling.

[00:17:16] Speaker B: It’s 03:00 in the morning.

[00:17:17] Speaker A: Yeah.

[00:17:18] Speaker B: Yeah. So I’ll report back in six months.

[00:17:20] Speaker A: That sounds good. So if you were listening to this and it’s the middle of the night and you want to relax and just drift off, learning about ants being kneecapped or how to wipe your butt properly, ask your smart speaker. But whisper, because whoever you’re sleeping nearby, they don’t want to wake up. Ask your smart speaker to play brain junk podcast. Or you can listen anywhere. You listen to podcasts like subscribe, review, catch us on YouTube, buy some merch. You know. You know what to do. We’ve been here. We’ve done this. You’re tired.

[00:17:56] Speaker B: Don’t hit the merch store until it’s daylight hours. Please.

[00:17:59] Speaker A: Yeah.

[00:17:59] Speaker B: Okay.

[00:18:00] Speaker A: Yeah. You don’t want that bright blue screen?

[00:18:02] Speaker B: No.

[00:18:03] Speaker A: Amy and I will catch you next time when we share more of everything you never knew you wanted to know, and I guarantee you will not be bored. Now roll over. Use the cold side of the pillow. Go back to sleep.

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