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Here's Why You Might Have Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Thoughts At 3 a.m.

And five ways to make them go away.

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illustration of woman struggling to sleep thinking of many things to complete
Loris Lora
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My late-night worries are about as predictable as my afternoon urges to nap.

What’s not predictable are the concerns that pop into my head in the middle of the night, which range from stressing about a deadline I must have missed (I didn’t!) to a friend I may have been rude to in third grade (quite possible!) to my headache that might turn out to be cancer (it isn’t!).

There’s something about the middle of the night that draws out our worst fears and magnifies them. Why is this a thing and what can we do to squash that crushing anxiety?

During the day, we’re distracted by work, kids and life in general, says Lauren Brooks, a licensed professional counselor in Philadelphia. But in the middle of the night, the world gets quiet, and our only distraction is our mind. Our brains produce a litany of concerns, which usually take the form of catastrophizing, rehashing unpleasant experiences, predicting bad outcomes or reminding us of a never-ending to-do list. This often interferes with our ability to fall asleep or stay asleep, and these interruptions can heighten negative thoughts and fears, producing a vicious cycle of worsening worries.

This is normal, says Caroline Danda, a licensed clinical psychologist in the greater Kansas City area. It’s your brain’s way of processing your day and preparing for the future. But normal overthinking isn’t necessarily helpful, especially if it interrupts your sleep and causes distress.

So here are a few ways to nix those worries.

1. Put a worry journal on your nightstand.

This is a journal you can use to dump all your concerns and your to-dos. Jot down anything you’re worried about during the day — and even in the middle of the night if necessary. “Usually, things feel lighter when they are on paper, as it gives you more objectivity about your problems and they don’t seem as big,” says Brooks. “Additionally, it gives your brain permission to rest since you have the reassurance that your worries and to-dos are written down, so your brain doesn’t need to constantly remind you of them.”

2. Turn off the screens.

Yes, you’ve probably heard this one before. But here’s how it can help with your midnight worries. Danda says the light from the screens impacts the release of melatonin, which delays sleep and leaves you more time to ruminate. If you’re watching or reading something anxiety-provoking, it’s even worse (so don’t check work emails before bed, for example).

3. Set aside time to worry.

Picture yourself shutting away each worry into something you can close, such as a box with a lid, a closet with a door or a dresser drawer that shuts, says Melissa Bennett-Heinz, a licensed clinical social worker who practices throughout the country. “Imagine putting each worry into the container,” she says. “See them going in, take a deep breath, and tell yourself you’re putting this away for now, and you can return to it at a later time, and it will still be there.” Then, put the lid on and give yourself permission to walk away. You can worry about it tomorrow in your five or 10 minutes of allotted worry time.

4. Try grounding yourself.

You can focus on the concerns of tomorrow when the time comes. Right now, it’s time to ground yourself. You can light a candle and notice the smell. Or do some conscious breathing. If a worry comes to mind, allow yourself to notice it, and bring your attention back to your breathing, says Brent Metcalf, a licensed clinical social worker in Tennessee.

5. Challenge negative thoughts.

If nothing else seems to help, try challenging those negative thoughts by using cognitive restructuring strategies, says Jessica Miller, a licensed mental health counselor. Check whether there is evidence to back up your fears and notice if you’re overreacting to the issues. To change your viewpoint, Miller says, replace negative beliefs with more realistic and optimistic alternatives.

Do you find yourself lying awake in the middle of the night? What do you do about it? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Health