How to stay calm at 4 a.m.
January 26, 2014 3:23 PM   Subscribe

There's a lot of advice out there on how to achieve calm when you are awake and focusing. By day I apply this and have become decent at getting a grip and putting things in perspective once I'm awake and out of bed. But what about the hours when you are half-awake in bed and your guard is down? By 8 a.m. I feel like I have been in an all-night punching match with worries that have run loose while the watchmen are passed out. What do you do to avoid sleep-time anxiety? Is the answer just to be even calmer before you go to sleep? Or can you recommend some other middle-of-the-night strategy?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (39 answers total) 50 users marked this as a favorite
I listen to audiobooks, sitcoms, or podcasts. Nothing intense or gripping and not too loud.
posted by bunderful at 3:32 PM on January 26, 2014 [4 favorites]

I do a combination of deep breathing, muscle relaxation and mindfulness exercises.

Like this - deep, regular breathing, during which I think of all my muscles from head to toe and relax them consciously "one by one". Then, when my body feels heavy from relaxation and I am breathing slowly and comfortably, I imagine myself sitting by a river where boats (or leaves, or swimmers, whatever you like) are drifting by. Each of these (let's say) leaves comes into your range of sight, drifts from one side to the other and then disappears down the river. You can't stop them, so you don't try to hang on to them. You just sit there, comfortably breathing, and watch them go by.

So then, every time you have a thought, or a worry, "freeze" it in a picture and place it on one of the leaves, and watch it go away. Each leaf can carry one of your thoughts and worries, but you don't hang on to them - you just watch them go by.

I normally fall asleep at some point.
posted by ipsative at 3:32 PM on January 26, 2014 [19 favorites]

Like bunderful, I listen to podcasts or audiobooks. They have to be neither too boring nor too interesting, and they can't have wildly varying sound levels. I use the auto-timer function to turn off after 30 minutes (so the sound isn't running all night) and I'm rarely awake when it turns off.

Anxiety makes me wake frequently. When that happens, I turn the audiobook etc. back on as soon as I wake up, and I'm usually back to sleep pretty quickly.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:39 PM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nthing podcasts. Podcasts are probably the best thing that ever happened for my insomnia, because I used to have to listen to talk radio at 4 in the morning, and podcasts are so much better.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:46 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thirding the podcasts. Fresh Airis good if it's not someone too interesting. I also listen to lots of Buddhist podcasts which are good because it's only one speaker and very chill. Audio Dharma is my favorite.
posted by dawkins_7 at 3:47 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I worry most at night too, and one thing that I've learned that has been especially helpful is the "giving yourself permission to not think about it" trick. Basically, it's an issue of scheduling actual time to worry so that you don't have to worry about things around the clock or at times that are inconvenient (like sleeping). There's weird sort of morality built into worry, such that we think that we have to do it, or else we lose control of our life. So, the trick is parking your worries somewhere that you know you will come back to them later, such that you feel safe not ruminating on them constantly around the clock.

So, here's how it (ideally) works in a sleeping context. If you have a worry-journal by your bed, sometimes it's very helpful to put your concerns down in writing as they come up in your mind. Not only does it help you process a bit in the moment and make it feel like you safely parked it somewhere, but you can also say, "Boy, that's some important stuff; so important that I'm going to schedule time later, say at 10 am tomorrow, to take a first step towards a resolution." What you'll find is that it's a legitimate and tangible step towards solving it, so it gives your mind some peace. You also feel as if you aren't morally deficient by failing to ruminate on it all the time, because you actually did something.

What I found is that when I started scheduling time to worry, it became much easier at night to literally say to myself, when worries come up, "You have permission to not think about that right now, and it's okay because you are working on it later."

I think this works best with the kinds of worry that we can take tangible steps towards resolving. If we are worrying about things outside of our control, it might require a more nuanced solution, although I still think a worry journal and giving yourself permission to chill mentally is probably still helpful.
posted by SpacemanStix at 3:48 PM on January 26, 2014 [19 favorites]

Sex knocks some people out in a good, restful way, if that is an option.
posted by vrakatar at 3:50 PM on January 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Usually I do a crossword. Or read for a while. After ~20min, I usually get sleepy again.
posted by sarah_pdx at 4:00 PM on January 26, 2014

Cspan is rerunning astoundingly droning dull (yet vital and important) shows at that time, keep the sound just high enough to get a few words but the polite murmur should lull one into a pleasant catatonia.
posted by sammyo at 4:09 PM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I self soothe. This can take a few forms but the most frequent is talking to myself, telling myself that whatever I am worrying about is not so big in the scheme of things and that everything will work out right in the end.

The more I have done this, the less things bother me at 4am.

Are you drinking alcohol at night? The anxiety you feel maybe your liver kicking into ethanol metabolising. Reducing my alcohol intake at night has also really helped with anxious early morning wakings.
posted by Kerasia at 4:29 PM on January 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Reading a 'good for me' book. I'm reading Master and Commander. It's possible I'll be reading it for the rest of my life, since I can only read ten pages max before passing out, and that's really extreme, and I usually read only one or two pages.

I'd recommending finding an aspirational book -- you want to have read it, more than you want to read it -- and make it your new 4am friend.

I recommend Master and Commander. You can sit there wondering what "f'ocsle" means and why it comes up every ten pages. It'll put your lights out. In moments when I turned to this book in reckoning with my mortality, I've found a sweet solace that says, 'whatever, whoever the fuck cares, a lilting ship on the high seas, off to bed'.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 4:32 PM on January 26, 2014 [11 favorites]

This has been a thing I used to be terrible at and have gotten better at recently. The main thing is to remind myself

- my 4 am "brain" is a terrible liar and should be ignored (I think about like when I hear the birds in the morning and I am like FUCK THEY ARE LOUD but really they are not loud I am just rattled and it's 6 am and I need to unrattle myself)
- I am actually quite tired, if I'd just let myself think tired wandering thoughts and not whatever I want to think about that seems very important but actually isn't

It's weird because it's actually more work to gently redirect your brain to not thinking about what your anxious mind wants to think about enough to let your mind wander. However, once you get into practice with it, it can be quite helpful (or was for me anyhow). So for me if I jolt awake at 4 am with AAAAA thoughts, I usually do this

- don't look at the clock
- get up and go to the bathroom if that's why I'm awake
- get in a comfy position in bed
- think about something super banal -- haircuts I'd like, places I'd like to visit, what walking through the woods feels like -- and encourage my mind to wander off
- give it 10-15 minutes and if that doesn't work, get up and read (Kindle or book, no screen time) and try again in 15 minutes
- sometimes if I am really having trouble I will turn on a white noise machine and encourage my brain to think that I am a high class lady who is on a terribly fancy blimp ride and marvel at the blimp noises and whatever.

It sort of doesn't matter how stupid whatever you are thinking is, the important part is to remember that you are tired, and to not give in to your anxious mind to think about nervy thoughts. Other people swear by benadryl and/or melatonin to keep you just muzzy-headed enough that nodding off is easier. I know someone who used to wake up and have a few tokes and go back to bed.
posted by jessamyn at 4:49 PM on January 26, 2014 [13 favorites]

Mentally build a fantasy land. Lately I plan what I would do if I won the lottery (chance: 0% exactly, as I don't buy tickets). Another alternative is to put yourself as a superhero into a favorite book/setting...what are the cool things you would have, imagine the conversations you would have with the other characters, etc. Going back to the same familiar mental world gets easier and easier, but there are still lots of little details (none of which really matter) to keep my mind occupied.

And yes, masturbation is also good, just throwing that out there.
posted by anaelith at 4:54 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I tell myself stories. I try to have an ongoing story in my head - exciting but not stressful, nothing to do with my actual life. Every night, I start at the beginning, and I try to get a little further in before I go to sleep. On nights when I have a good story going, I fall asleep right away (and even look forward to going to bed). On nights when I don't, I lay awake worrying for hours. This has been true for as long as I remember, and I'll sometimes go back to old stories if I'm stuck. There's a story that's basically Tombs of Atuan fan fiction that I made up when I was ten, that I will still go back to on occasion when nothing else works. The funny thing is, I've never made it to the end of that story - it works too well. Will Ged and the OFC ever escape the underground caves? I may never know.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 4:56 PM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

This problem plagued me for YEARS. YEARS I SAY! In 2012, I read a tip that said to listen to something at a very low volume, so you can hear if you are paying attention but it is sometimes hard to understand because it is so quiet. This was the thing! WOW! My brain got dstracted enough by whatever I was listening to that the endless ruminating stopped and I was just thinking about whatever I was listening to. Then without the pressure of my worries, my brain was able to go, "Thank GOD! I was exhausted!" and then let go and fall asleep.

I started with the show "How It's Made", which is a very nondramatic, non-emotional show about factory processes. I can't tell you how much this show saved my brain. I owe everyone involved a huge debt of gratitude. I love that show forever.

After that, I graduated myself to sitcoms and went through every episode of The Office, Parks and Rec, Futurama, etc.

Sometimes, I would drift off, shut down the laptop, and then find my brain slowly creeping over to the Worry section on the sly. As soon as I realize, "hey, I am awake and ruminating!", I start up the laptop again and start over. I don't let it turn into an hour of laying there and "hope that I will get sleepy". Ah-ha, I know that smooth line, BRAIN! Nope. Back to the Netflix archives.

My partner noticed my success and adopted the same technique, working through every episode of every iteration of Star Trek. (Next Gen, Deep Space Nine, etc.) That is actually probably too much drama for me -- for this bedtime thing, that is. In normal daytime hours I feel I can handle The Picard.

Best of luck to you Anonymous, amd everyone who suffers from this!
posted by TheClonusHorror at 4:58 PM on January 26, 2014 [6 favorites]

I believe the accepted wisdom is orgasms. Three if you're a woman, one if you're a man. (Alone or with a friend.) That should knock you out like a drug.
posted by taff at 4:59 PM on January 26, 2014

I do a combination of what TheClonusHorror and jessamyn suggested. For years, I've turned on AM radio very low, so low that if I roll over, I can't hear what they're saying. It can distract me from whatever thoughts might keep me up. Also, I like to think about something super dull. Usually it's what I'll pack on my next vacation, or what I should wear to work or an event. Finally, I DO NOT ALLOW myself to think about work. There's plenty of time to stress about that in the morning.
posted by Wet Hen at 5:05 PM on January 26, 2014

my 4 am "brain" is a terrible liar and should be ignored

This is right, I forgot about this trick, too. For myself, it required noticing patterns in my thinking and giving more epistemic reliability to times when I wasn't "hungry, angry, tired, or lonely." It's like coming to terms with your past and realizing that your seven year old self was not always the most reliable interpreter of the emotional baggage that you end up carrying with you for the next couple of decades. In this case, I recognized that my half-conscious self shouldn't get nearly as much credit as my awake self in determining how I should be feeling about something. This realization in the moment allows me to table my thoughts about it until a more opportune time (again, a giving permission thing). It takes some practice, and some repetition to internalize, but it can be really helpful.
posted by SpacemanStix at 5:09 PM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

The best advice for me has been to remind myself that I am still resting. Even if I am not sleeping.
posted by Mr. Yuck at 5:10 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

In my experience, this sort of chronic middle-of-the-night anxiety requires medical treatment. 1mg/night clonazepam (Klonopin) was a miracle drug for me. An over-the-counter (but less effective) alternative would be large doses (100mg/night for me) of diphenhydramine (Benadryl).
posted by Jacqueline at 5:12 PM on January 26, 2014

My favorite remedy for waking up at 4am feeling worried anxious is a bit unorthodox, but it helps me tremendously so I'll throw it out there. I listen to the audio portion (computer screen turned off) of an episode or two of one of my favorite TV shows. I've seen every episode of Cheers, Frasier, and Seinfeld about a dozen times, so listening to those shows doesn't really engage my brain enough to wake me all the way up, but it definitely puts me in a calmer, happier place.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 5:33 PM on January 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure how old you are, but this is something I have experienced after the age of 40. There are more worries to be had, and I frequently wake up in the middle of the night now (more than I ever did when I was younger).

Podcasts are not the answer.

Stimulation is not the answer.

What you have to do is take note of your worries during the day, and do something about them. That way, when you wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about various things, you can tell yourself all the things you are doing to fix or take control of the situation.

A lot of us never learn this when we are younger, unfortunately.

By doing all the right things (as best we can, anyhow), and by remind ourselves we are doing all the right things, it gives us the ability to have hope and faith.

A podcast won't do that.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:50 PM on January 26, 2014 [7 favorites]

What you have to do is take note of your worries during the day, and do something about them.
Wow does that not work for me at all. My worries are not rational. Telling myself rationally that I'm taking rational steps to address my worries is really not going to help. Plus, what happens when the thing that's keeping you up at 4 in the morning is the inevitability that one day you'll die? What rational steps am I taking to defeat my own eventual mortality? I've been ruminating about that one in the wee small hours of the night since I was approximately eight years old.

Distraction is pretty much the only thing that works for me.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 6:08 PM on January 26, 2014 [8 favorites]

The first step for me was realizing I could not trust myself between midnight and 8:00 am. Once I saw that clearly the rest became easier.
posted by milarepa at 6:13 PM on January 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

A podcast won't do that.

Just because something doesn't work for one person, doesn't mean it can't be a big success for another, you know.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:28 PM on January 26, 2014 [7 favorites]

Seconding How It's Made. Brooks has got the most mellow, gee whiz (in a non-stimulating way) voice that I've ever heard.

Also, give yourself permission to not "have to" sleep eight hours. Think of it as taking 2x three hour naps. Get up and do something if your mind is racing, and then go back to bed when you're ready. It's amazing how much pressure there is in your programming to remain in that bed for eight solid hours, or you're not doing it right. That's bullshit. Let it go, and start enjoying sleeping when you want to again.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 6:53 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing distraction. If I don't have access to a podcast or non-challenging t.v., I choose a color and come up with alphabetical names for paint chips in that color. (Green might be Avocado, Beryl, Crocodile, Dandelion Leaf, etc.) I have never once made it all the way through the alphabet without falling asleep, and I can be incredibly anxious.
posted by corey flood at 7:34 PM on January 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

I find this website on how to meditate helpful. Celexa and Ambien also helped me with this problem.
posted by southern_sky at 7:48 PM on January 26, 2014

In my experience, this sort of chronic middle-of-the-night anxiety requires medical treatment. 1mg/night clonazepam (Klonopin) was a miracle drug for me. An over-the-counter (but less effective) alternative would be large doses (100mg/night for me) of diphenhydramine (Benadryl).

An entire benadryl taken at 4.00 in the morning would make me sleep through my alarm. It's definitely helpful but I would take about 1/5 of a pill if I were taking it in the middle of the night. In general if having trouble sleeping I'll take 1/2 a pill before bed. Of course I'm a bit sensitive to meds so YMMV.
posted by bunderful at 7:56 PM on January 26, 2014

i'm pretty solidly in the podcast camp (here's to you, ira glass!), but as a supplementary measure, i've been thinking a lot lately about the idea of SANCTUARY - a space (physical or otherwise) where we are safe - from any flavor of harm, be it physical, psychological, etc. certain topics or activities in my life are sanctuary-certified - dogs, travel, my hopes for the next recording i'd like to do, etc. casting it as sanctuary seems to be effective because it acknowledges that what my brain is doing to my nervous system creates the need for protection, comfort, care - i need to stop treating myself the way my brain wants to and start being a whole lot nicer.

sometimes thinking about things this way gives me just the push i need to nod off.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 8:00 PM on January 26, 2014 [5 favorites]

Well... I often have obsessive thoughts at 4 am, but if I focus on them I'm sometimes able to figure out solutions that eluded me during the daytime, especially work related problems. I actually do some of my best problem solving in the middle of the night with my heart racing because I'm so worried about whatever is on my mind. So, not great for sleep, but productive.

For more existential 4 am ponderings, I repeat the states and their capitals in my head until I pass out. Or label a mental map of europe. Or play traditional car games like naming fruits or animals in alphabetical order. Something that involves just enough thinking to drown out the rest of my brain.
posted by gatorae at 8:34 PM on January 26, 2014

I'm Nthing Kerasia and jessamyn: the 4am brain is just a fretful useless jerk. I had to learn to give it permission to worry without actually paying attention to its concerns, thereby letting those worries pass by like clouds (or like sheep to count to get back to sleep).

Failing that, getting up to make a cup of herbal tea - non-caffeinated, of course - and/or pee and/or turning on the light and reading for 30 minutes or so (or as others have said, meditating or listening to something to distract you) tends to break the worry cycle, minimizing my interrupted-sleep time.

In other words, when you're tired and half-awake it's important to remember that your Superego's guard is down, so it can't head off all the Id's half-baked fears that come boiling out to make you pointlessly upset without providing solutions to the problems it poses. If the Id's not going to be useful, then it is simply unrealistic and irrelevant until I'm in a fully-awake frame of mind to properly address said concerns in the calm clear rational light of day and can actually do something about them!
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:14 PM on January 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Sleeping brains work a lot better if they're getting enough oxygen. If you snore, go get a sleep study; you may have sleep apnoea, and fixing that with a CPAP machine could make a world of difference. Has for me.
posted by flabdablet at 11:14 PM on January 26, 2014

My recipe is BBC World Service (either streaming from the Web or my local public radio that plays it from 12 to 5), smoke a joint or take a klonopin.
posted by nestor_makhno at 11:37 PM on January 26, 2014

Listen to something with a narrative. Fiction, nonfiction, anything that will draw you in. A quiet voice in your ear. You forget your problems when you start following someone else's problems. And then you sleep.
posted by pracowity at 4:38 AM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

I agree with having some low-level audio happening. To make it a more healing experience, what has worked for me is putting on a meditation podcast (i.e. Audiodharma or Tara Brach) and listening to it with my hand on my heart. Just that simple connection seems to increase whatever chemical is responsible for a soothing feeling.
posted by softlord at 12:18 PM on January 27, 2014

I'll nth the idea of low-level audio, but podcasts don't work for me because I don't know what's going to happen next. I strongly recommend audiobooks, ideally one that you've listened to before or one where you're very familiar with the original book. Since you know the ending, plus all the good/exciting bits before that, you won't be kept in suspense.

I've been doing a mixture of Discworld, Sherlock Holmes, and Nero Wolfe novels for years. At this point, anything from Feet of Clay, Champagne for One, or Valley of Fear knocks me right out.
posted by darchildre at 12:52 PM on January 27, 2014

I hear you on this topic - I struggle in the same way, frequently.
To get myself settled down, I've been making sure that I have my cat with me, so I have someone to chat to and pat. Patting the cat helps me to chill out a bit - I can fiddle with his whiskers, make little mohawks, look at every detail of his face... just try to be "in the now" with my fuzzy buddy.

I try to write down a list of whatever is currently stressing me out, and if I can think of a fix, jot it down beside me.

I try really hard not to give myself internet access in bed, because then I'm a bit OCD and start prowling the whole net looking for how to Fix My Issue Now - so might be a poor idea if you get overly obsessive at that time of night.

Sometimes though, logging onto askmefi looking for a similar question and reading the compassionate responses works - many responders help to give the question perspective in the context of "whole life".

There are some motivational phone apps that provide a series of motivational quotes - sounds cheesy, but reading words of reassurance and perseverance can move me to a better head space. If you ascribe to Christian faith/spirituality, you might find that reading an old copy of Guideposts might bring you some relief - many of the stories are about people overcoming a difficulty when they are anxious/alone/afraid/searching for guidance (not proselytizing, I'm spiritually undecided - but the message of hope and trust that the world sorts itself out and so will my life help me a bit)

Deep breathing mediations may do the trick.
Nature Sounds for Me is an app and website where you can customize your own mediative natural sounds track, and download it. My custom track is about 30 minutes long, and I've got it on loop on my Ipod. Sometimes I just try to listen really closely to what I'm hearing - other times, I time my deep breathing exercises along with the crash of the ocean waves, or whatever other looping noise is on the track.

My other thing lately has been downloading a real old snooze of a classic book off of Project Gutenberg, and trying to make my way through a boring plot with challenging language - wears my brain out a bit. (Unfortunately, sometimes you wind up accidentally picking something that turns out to be fun, like Vanity Fair, and then wind up reading all night haha)

As a grad student, I'm lucky in the sense that if I'm running the night-anxiety arc of "OMG I'm going to fail my life everything is gonna burn to bits", I'm not required to be at school for set hours. If i just can't get down to sleep, I will work through the night on one of the projects and go back to bed in the AM when I'm thoroughly exhausted. That it the last -ditch resort, and I don't recommend it for people with 9-5s.

In preventative terms, I've found that it is important to make sure I have gotten some exercise that day that truly wears me out. When I don't have enough exercise, I am more of an anxious mess in the wee hours.

Really hot baths before bed might either wake you or exhaust you totally - a hot tub zones me out and I usually have a good sleep.

The nights can be long, dark, pointless torments of the soul - I sincerely hope you find some tool to give you relief.
posted by NorthernAutumn at 1:26 PM on January 27, 2014 [1 favorite]

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