Nighttime worrying
October 6, 2009 11:36 AM   Subscribe

Why does life always seem so much gloomier, and problems more formidable, when you're thinking them over in the middle of the night vs. during normal waking hours? And which perspective is more accurate-- the rosy daytime view, or the pessimistic nighttime one?

As the veteran of a few extended late-night worry-fests, I'm kind of freaked out by how different the same problems can seem when viewed at different times in the day. I can honestly go from thinking that Bad Thing X is very likely to happen, and would be completely terrible if it did (3AM) to feeling sure that X is fairly unlikely to happen, and would be not especially problematic if it did (11 AM the next day).

Clearly, either 3-AM-me or 11-AM-me is wrong, and in the interests of rational decision-making, it'd be handy to know which one. Thing is, I've never really been able to find any obvious flaws in either my daytime or my nighttime logic. So whom should I trust-- is it that daytime and distraction causes us to (ahem) misunderestimate the magnitude of our problems, or that creepy darkness magnifies issues that aren't really so bad? Anyone have ideas about the physiological/hormonal/psychological factors that might be causing this sort of circadian perspective switch?
posted by yersinia to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
There are fewer distractions at 3am, and random factors that may positively influence your mood during the day - food, friends, the sun - aren't usually around.
posted by fire&wings at 11:40 AM on October 6, 2009

When my mom couldn't talk me out of being upset over something (in the evening), so would often tell me to just go to bed because it would seem better in the morning. That has never failed! Even if the problem is still there, it never seems as bad the next morning. I think it has more to do with having a rested mind, body, and spirit than it does with the literal time of day.
posted by Eicats at 11:40 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

This chapter in "The biopsychology of mood and arousal" might interest you.
posted by CunningLinguist at 11:41 AM on October 6, 2009 [4 favorites]

did the things you worried about in the past that seemed very likely to happen at 3 AM end up happening, or not? and when they did was it completely terrible or not especially problematic?
posted by katieanne at 11:44 AM on October 6, 2009

From a practical standpoint worrying and anxiety are generally counterproductive, and thus it might make sense to work on learning how to handle stress in productive ways: exercise, meditation, etc.

Regarding your assertion that either 3-AM-me or 11-AM-me is wrong, I am not so sure either one is "wrong" or "right." Neither viewpoint is mutually exclusive: each expresses a side to how you are feeling about life at the present time.

Just as if you were having nightmares while you slept, you would want to attempt to understand the source of them, so too the source of your insomnia is worth looking for.

When one is tired one's mind often is less able to defend itself against needless worries, but if this is a chronic thing I would recommend looking to natural sleep aids (herbal teas, etc) in order to get a better, anxiety-free, night's sleep.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 11:46 AM on October 6, 2009

Both perspectives are probably a bit wrong, the truth being somewhere in the middle. But I think it's probably closer to the daytime version.

Maybe it's like the difference between worrying about doing something and actually doing it - It's almost always way less stressful than you though it would be. During the day you're in "doing stuff" mode and have mundane reality to reassure you, but at night your imagination is free to run away with itself.

If night worrying is bothering you, it helps me to just write stuff down and decide that I can forget about it until the morning.
posted by lucidium at 11:46 AM on October 6, 2009

You are assuming that this phenomenon holds true for all people. I personally cannot relate to what you are experiencing. That being said, I have experienced differing perspectives on various issues in my life at different points in time.

You also assume that either ONE or THE OTHER is "right." The truth is probably that both perspectives have some truth. Rarely are things black or white, and it behooves you to learn to think in shades of gray. In that sense you should probably consider both of your "circadian perspectives" and come to an average of the two.

But if you HAVE to...what perspective should you trust?

The daytime one. It probably does you better to trust the you that believes that you can handle whatever problems come your way in life. Cultivating confidence (however blind) in the face of adversity will make it easier to get up when you are wrong, and will give you more of an edge going into any period of relative difficulty. It is better to err on the side of overconfidence and rosiness when facing life's problems that to get used to feeling overwhelmed...which won't do you any good even if you are right. You can trust that life will continue to dish out can only control how you THINK and therefore FEEL about those challenges.
posted by jnnla at 11:48 AM on October 6, 2009

"It is awfully easy to be hard-boiled about everything in the daytime, but at night is another thing."

-- Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
posted by kirkaracha at 11:49 AM on October 6, 2009 [3 favorites]

I have heard this as "All cats are gray in the dark" or "Even a spotted pig looks black at night." See also "In the real, dark night of the soul, it is always 3 o'clock in the morning, day after day," F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I'm sorry. In my experience, the daytime, optimistic me is usually right, or at least happier.
posted by fiercecupcake at 11:50 AM on October 6, 2009

For me, a big part of the middle-of-the-night worrying comes from the fact that I am already anxious about being awake when I want to be asleep. Typically, also, the things I worry about in the middle of the night have relatively simple solutions but are not things I can take care of at 3:00 a.m. There is not much that stresses me out more than having a long to-do list full of items I can't complete.
posted by something something at 11:53 AM on October 6, 2009

It could be partly because, as animals with not-so-great night vision, the dark triggers an enhanced sense of danger, because we can't see what might be out there. That physical reaction then gets translated into over-worry about things that have nothing to do with the brightness of the day.
posted by xingcat at 11:58 AM on October 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Being tired makes the difference? Every problem seems to be too much to handle, everything seems to be the last straw, because it is difficult to believe you can muster the energy to handle it now and, projecting that, ever?

Think extra long days, when you must keep doing something, like moving a house. At the end of the day even small problems cause desperation, irritation or tears. Now instead of these small problems actually happening, but being something that you start to think about at night. Same desperation and irritation. You're tired.
posted by Free word order! at 12:01 PM on October 6, 2009

I've always found 4am to be the most depressing part of the day. I tend to feel like everything is hopeless when I'm awake at that time.

I visited a visited Northern Russia in the summer once and found that I didn't feel unhappy late at night. I'm not sure if that's because I was on vacation or because it was still light otuside.
posted by parakeetdog at 12:10 PM on October 6, 2009

I don't know about the daytime/nighttime question, but you might look into something called "depressive realism", where some studies purport to show that depressed people have a more accurate outlook on some things.

There are arguments for and against, as even a cursory review of studies shows, but it seems to me to be related to some of the things you are saying, and might be a topic that would help you think about your question.
posted by Gorgik at 12:22 PM on October 6, 2009

I experience this, too. I always thought that it was because at 3:00 am, there is usually nothing you can be doing about it...whatever IT is. And you aren't even having productive sleep, so you feel even more unable to control it. During the day, you are usually in a better position to take action and make stuff work. Even if you can't do anything about IT during the day, you can be doing productive things that put you more in control.
posted by Bueller at 12:25 PM on October 6, 2009

When I was going through a severe depression, there were a few times when I woke up between 3am and 4am in *complete terror*, with all kinds of worries racing around in my head. Friends have also said that they had woken up in that time-frame feeling very anxious.

Personally, I think there's something biological going on for some of us at that time. I've often wondered what it's all about. I think my psychiatrist even talked about it as 'early-morning wakening.'
posted by kitcat at 1:07 PM on October 6, 2009

I experience this as well and have often wondered why. I finally centered on the fact that I think when I am in bed, trying to sleep, I feel more vulnerable than when I am up, out and about, dressed and able to easily address crises during the day.

Add to this my own particular penchant for subconscious self-sabotage (I have a big day ahead of me! I need to sleep! But I AM WORRYING ABOUT THIS THING THAT PROVES MY ENTIRE LIFE IS GOING TO COME CRASHING DOWN WHEN IT INEVITABLY COMES TO PASS) and blammo - between-the-ears melodrama until morning!

That is, until I experienced it enough times that I got better at recognizing it. Sometimes it is still pretty difficult to conquer, but I have more tools to rationalize the irrational fears away.

Also -- when you are feeling this way, get up and do something. I watch 80s sitcoms. Works like a charm every time. Would Balki Bartakamous stay up all night worrying about his 401k? Dunt be ridickolous.
posted by pazazygeek at 1:21 PM on October 6, 2009

Just adding a data point that you are not alone. I go through this all the time (including last night). For me this is the worst on a Sunday night (probably because I am about to enter a new week). I feel like I shouldn't bother waking up at all. By 10am, I feel a 1000x more positive.

As much as I remind myself that it will pass by the next morning, I can never escape it.
posted by special-k at 1:51 PM on October 6, 2009

I can certainly sympathize. I, too, suffer from occasional nighttime angst. I have to think that it's due to your being tired and, thus, your defenses being impaired. Sometimes, worrisome thoughts just leap into my head just as I'm settling down to sleep and they just don't let go. Other times, on those occasions when I have to get-up in the middle of the night, those thoughts attack me just as I am trying to settle back in.

It's no fun.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:00 PM on October 6, 2009

Cortisol levels start to rise in the pre dawn hours. I'm no endocrinologist but I understand that it is sometimes referred to as the "stress hormone". I'm sure it's more complicated than that, but I think it's something like your body + brain gearing up for wakefulness - so if you wake up too early you have these stress/alertness hormones coursing through you, but you are not doing the regular daytime activities that would help you burn through them / react to them appropriately.
posted by geekgirl397 at 4:02 PM on October 6, 2009

I definitely know that if I get overtired, I get more depressed and more likely to think irrationally. If I find myself doing that I try to tell myself I'll feel better in the morning and go to bed. It may just be that you really need some sleep.
posted by IndigoRain at 5:30 PM on October 6, 2009

I always freak out about things in the middle of the night. Things just seem more DIRE. But I've had the same realization you've had-- that things generally are less scary the next morning, so now I make a conscious effort to put off freaking out about it until the following morning. I tell myself I can fully freak out about it once the sun is up. Then I am able to deal with it the next day, fairly calmly. A lot of the time I completely forget to worry about it.

My boyfriend is very happy I've stopped forcing him to have 2am conversations about my anxieties. Well... for the most part.
posted by np312 at 6:36 PM on October 6, 2009

For what it's worth, I've always felt the complete opposite.
posted by turkeyphant at 4:38 AM on October 7, 2009

I totally get this too. If you have something you need to do, you probably need to do it during the day. So if you're worrying about it at night, it seems more dire because you can't do anything about it at the moment. Also, as others said, you're tired, in bed, feeling a bit vulnerable as opposed to during the day, you're rested, active and out of the house, ready to deal with things.

This all plays into a realization I came to that many emotions are momentary; if you feel anxious at night it could be simply because you want to get to sleep and aren't, it may have little to do with the situations you focus on as you feel the anxiety.
posted by malapropist at 4:45 PM on October 7, 2009

« Older Fiber optics for dummies   |   From leaf to bud. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.