How can I stop waking up at 6AM and worrying about work?
September 3, 2016 12:57 PM   Subscribe

I have an extremely stressful job, and after a year of dealing with it poorly, I've become much better at managing it in my daily life, and have learned to dial it down and relax at the end of every night, trusting the problems to be solved in the morning. The problem is, I've also developed a frustrating routine of waking up 2 hours early, every day, and lying in bed worrying. This happens even on Saturday mornings, where I went to sleep relaxed and happy and have nothing particularly stressful to do the next day. When it happens, I desperately want to go back to sleep, but my mind won't stop spinning over the same problems, over and over again. Does anyone have any tips or tricks for ending this cycle?
posted by tweebiscuit to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I have found taking kava to be helpful when I wake up like that. It almost always allows me to spin my mind back down and go back to sleep, and it doesn't make me groggy when it's time to get up.
posted by spindrifter at 1:01 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

The (maybe too?) obvious suggestion seems to be mindfulness practice. I use Buddhify on the iPhone for bite-sized guided meditation, but there is tons more out there, and of course you can also just focus on your breath, if you are able.

Kinda different, but not that much, is the app "MySleepBuddy" (also on iOS). It reels off a variety of items, concepts etc (e.g. "a kiss", "an iPad" etc), and gives you a set amount of time to "imagine" them in your head. It's surprisingly effective at putting me to sleep, and I have quite an active mind. Obviously you may need to put a bit of effort into not letting your thoughts veer back towards work stress (hence mindfulness...).
posted by ClarissaWAM at 1:03 PM on September 3, 2016

Keep a notepad by your bed and quickly write down whatever it is that you are stressing/worrying about. Tell yourself, since you wrote it down, you don't need to worry about it anymore, you'll worry about it when you get up because you need a good night's sleep to make good decisions.
Go back to sleep.
posted by NoraCharles at 1:03 PM on September 3, 2016 [12 favorites]

Break the cycle. If you wake up, get out of bed and do something productive. Your body is associating waking up at 6 a.m. and worrying while you lie there. You need to rewrite the pattern so your body associates the bed with sleeping and not spinning your wheels while you lie there.

For awhile I was waking up every day at 3:30 a.m. and since I get up at 5 a.m., it felt pointless trying to get back to sleep. I wasn't worrying, just lying there unable to fall back asleep. So I started just getting out of bed and going downstairs. Sometimes I'd read a book or do some gentle stretching or even a little quiet tidying up. Sometimes if I read a book on the couch I'd fall asleep pretty quickly. After a few days I was able to sleep through 3:30 again. Was I tired? Oh yes, absolutely. But I drank a little extra coffee and pushed through. I also felt far less frustrated about the whole thing.
posted by sutel at 1:11 PM on September 3, 2016 [14 favorites]

I have some things worrying me at the moment. I can't stop the waking up in the middle of the night, but I do find turning the tv on to drown out my worried thoughts helps me fall back asleep.
posted by cecic at 1:19 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

This might be too simple to work - but - when I had a bout of this a few years ago, I found it useful to say to myself " I know that I am not thinking clearly at 6:00 in the morning. I should think about this later when I'm awake." But then, do that!
posted by wittgenstein at 1:47 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Agree with sutel. To your brain, worrying is productive. But it would happily work on some other problem if you let it.
posted by ian1977 at 1:48 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I used to wake up in the middle of the night with anxiety attacks. I mean, I sometimes still do but for a while it was really bad. Here are some things that helped:

meditation/breathing exercises
kava tea
valarian root
Rescue Remedy drops

I also got an Rx from my doctor for buspar (buspirone) which i was told to take "as needed". I've literally taken two or three pills total over the past year, but just knowing I have them helps.

BTW, all this was happening at a time when I was working out daily, so the advice to exercise didn't really make a difference for me.
posted by Brittanie at 1:54 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have some things worrying me at the moment. I can't stop the waking up in the middle of the night, but I do find turning the tv on to drown out my worried thoughts helps me fall back asleep.

I use boring audiobooks for this same purpose. I'll put in the headphones, set the volume kind of lowish, and then lay there in the dark listening to the narrator drone on. I usually fall back asleep, and even when I don't at least I'm not laying there thinking about work.
posted by Dip Flash at 1:55 PM on September 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

When my brain is spinning like that, what works best for me is to shift my attention to something gentle and soothing, like mindfullness meditation (Meditation Oasis is a good one) or Bob Ross. You want something steady and low key to focus on, but not so absorbing that it'll keep you from falling back asleep.

noracharles' advice about keeping a notepad on your nightstand is spot on. Write down what's on your mind and tell yourself you'll deal with it tomorrow. Having a ToDo list swirling around in your head is a guarantee for insomnia.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 1:57 PM on September 3, 2016 [2 favorites]

Also, give yourself a set time to fall back asleep and if you don't, just get up and do something you're not looking forward to like your workout (lol) or cleaning the bathroom or something on your dreaded ToDo list. Sometimes just the thought of having to actually get out of bed and do a dreaded chore is enough to put you right to sleep!
posted by LuckySeven~ at 2:04 PM on September 3, 2016

I've started trying something new when my brain gets stuck in worry mode. I bring up a memory and try to feel the emotion I felt at the time. So far, kid stuff like how it felt to sled or bike down a big hill seems to work best or anything that made you feel happy or excited. It's like trying to get your brain to skip over from the worry part of your brain to something else.
posted by stray thoughts at 2:40 PM on September 3, 2016

if you experience ASMR (and if you enjoy the aforementioned Bob Ross videos, you probably do...), youtube ASMR videos are great when I have this problem. if you watch the ones where someone is talking, it gives you something to focus on that isn't the stuff you're freaking out about, but it's much more soothing and sleep-inducing than, say, TV or (most) podcasts.
posted by goodbyewaffles at 2:44 PM on September 3, 2016

This is also in the same vein as "things to tell yourself" which may or may not work for you but, I happen to get this at night and I think "Fuck em. They're not paying me to work right now, I'm in my bed. It's not work time now. Fuck that." Then I think about how nice it is to be in bed and not working. I think about how comfy my bed is and how much I love my sheets and my pillow and my blanket. I usually drift off pretty soon. If the thoughts come back I continue to remind myself I'm in bed and they're not paying me for this; but it doesn't take too many tries before I'm happy to take my own advice.
posted by bleep at 3:27 PM on September 3, 2016 [5 favorites]

I had this constantly when my job/life was extremely stressful. It didn't really go away until I got treated for anxiety, but I found some ways to cope.

Seconding kava kava and also you can try something similar: bacopa. Both of these were for when I woke up - they did a fair job of helping me get back to sleep. I alternated them on different nights.

Also, its worth trying to see if reducing your caffeine intake helps. Some people speculate that early in the morning your body is going through caffeine withdrawal and that causes you to wake up. The loop of negative thoughts then keeps you awake.
posted by duoshao at 3:28 PM on September 3, 2016

This is me. I like to start just making up stories. They are almost always terrible but when my mind wanders back to worrying, I point it back to the story. Going over movies I love scene by scene also works.

There is a slightly cheesy meditation app called iSleep Easy that has a middle of the night mode for this. I've found it works.
posted by darksong at 3:59 PM on September 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

I read a beach book til I fall asleep.
I figure out in detail how to spend 100 million dollars. That much spending makes me tired.
posted by SyraCarol at 3:59 PM on September 3, 2016

Wait, wait. Waking up at 6 is AWESOME.

(This coming from someone who didn't used to be a morning person until I got a stressful job.)

I know you said you want to go back to sleep, but... Do you? Really?

It's not 3 am, it's 6 am. It's only 2 hours, not 4/5. (Which would def be a problem.) is full of folks asking how they can wake up earlier and "have a morning."

If it's anxiety that's having a wide reaching affect across your life, by all means, get it treated. Please, please do. But I found that my body wanted to be awake and doing productive things before work, so that I had some time to chill before work.

I used to wake up 30 minutes before my alarm, run the dog around the block, brush my teeth, and hit the train.

But since my sleep changed to an earlier schedule (because of my stressful job) I now wake up 2 -3 hours early, take the dog to the park, have a nice coffee from a real coffee shop, sometimes make breakfast from scratch, catch up on emails, make plans for the weekend with fam and friends, watch a documentary I've been meaning to watch, go to the bank when it opens, skip traffic, hit the gym, or enjoy my fiancé.

And I STILL make it to work before most of my coworkers, which gives me wonderfully ample time to make my to-do and check the Internets without distraction.

My work days are actually much less stressful because I wake up early.

I honestly love 6 am even on weekends now. I still stay out and occasionally go HAM with my buds, but I'll still wake up at 6, do a couple things, and then take a nap later. Because Saturday!

If you're going to bed at a remotely reasonable hour, your internal clock is waking you up early, and your brain is spinning... There's no reason you can't get up and do fun things in the morning.

(However if you're completely wiped during the day, Id have another answer. Part of that answer might be go to bed earlier.)

Honestly, my early morning schedule change wasn't welcome either. But I've learned to love it.

After all, I get basically a half a day that most people miss!

(Apologies if this doesn't answer your question, I just have a different perspective that might be useful!)
posted by functionequalsform at 4:08 PM on September 3, 2016 [16 favorites]

I swear by the Sleep With Me podcast in these wakeful situations (which happen to me a lot). The show notes tell you when the actual story starts, if you want to skip the intro. I'm not a good sleeper but that podcast works like a sleeping pill for me. I find it hard to stay awake for more than 10 minutes when I listen to it, even if I've woken up at 3 am.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 4:14 PM on September 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

This happens to me also (so by this point in the thread you know you're not alone). These things help me, YMMV:
- exercise, mostly aerobic or weights the evening before to tire me out more, amazing how when you're more tired your body won't let your mind wake up.
- as was said above, write down the hot button tasks (I have an Evernote note called GTD with a Critical section), and remind yourself how many times you resolved tough problems after getting a good night's rest
- if I wake up with one of those hot button's bothering me, I enter one or more suggestions to myself in my GTD note (tablet by my bed)
- then I try (and it doesn't always work) to find that perfect position in bed (for me it's on my right side with face pushed into the pillow and ear flat on the bed) and fall back asleep.
posted by forthright at 5:04 PM on September 3, 2016

Break the cycle. If you wake up, get out of bed and do something productive. Your body is associating waking up at 6 a.m. and worrying while you lie there. You need to rewrite the pattern so your body associates the bed with sleeping and not spinning your wheels while you lie there.

This is your best bet. Basic rules of sleep hygiene say to never lay in bed for more than 20 minutes without sleeping. Continuing to lay in bed awake is pretty much the worst possible thing you can do, regardless of whether you're listening to a podcast, writing down your worries, etc. If you're not falling back to sleep within 20 minutes, it's not worth doing.

The other benefit not mentioned above is that, the longer you're awake, the more your body's pressure to sleep builds up. More pressure to sleep = more deep, fulfilling sleep. So it's actually a better idea to give yourself LESS sleep to give your body a chance to relearn that bed /= worrying.

Figure out how much sleep you're actually getting with this 6am wake time and set the same bedtime every night, and then a wake time that's however many hours of sleep you're actually getting past that time. For example, if you're going to bed at midnight and waking up at 6 when you want to wake up at 8, that's a 6 hour sleep period, so go to bed at 2 and wake up at 8. NO NAPS. Be really really religious about sticking to that, even on weekends (sorry). Get out of bed if you're not asleep.
posted by quiet coyote at 5:29 PM on September 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

My go-to has always been music; check out the selection at The "Secret Agent" channel has a wonderful playlist of lounge-lizard music that's very soothing.
posted by Napoleonic Terrier at 6:03 PM on September 3, 2016

When I had this, I found it very helpful to make a list of the worries before bed. I never wrote them down, but I'd figure out what all the worries were, and decide on a course of action (even if the action was "take no action until get X information.") It really helped them stay put and stop swirling around.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:34 PM on September 3, 2016

I do this as well. I will worry and ruminate and obsess over something so that it interferes with my sleep and with any moment that might bring me joy. A therapist taught me a trick that sounds REALLY DUMB. In fact, when she explained it to me, I stared at her and said, "Um, you realize I'm a grown adult, right?" and she was like, "JUST TRY IT, AQUIFER."

Picture a box in your head. Actually picture the box. (My box is a pirate's chest, FYI.) When you have the thought, for example, "Ugh, I'm going to get screamed at on Monday over those TPS reports..." you picture putting the thought in the box. And closing it. Now the thought is in the box and you can't think about it anymore. Anytime your brain tries to bring it up, or any other anxiety-inducing thought, "Hey, let's obsess about how humiliating being fired will be!" NOPE, it goes in the box. If you try to think about it again, NOPE, it's in the box. Can't think about it. (I sometimes imagine wrapping barbed wire around the box every time my brain tries to bring up something I'm worried about.) IT'S SURPRISINGLY EFFECTIVE. I've passed this little trick onto other friends and they said it's worked for them. Give it a try?
posted by Aquifer at 7:09 PM on September 3, 2016 [3 favorites]

Totally forgot to mention in my earlier comment- once you get solid with not waking up with a 6 hour (or however long) time period, you can start gradually expanding it by about 15 minutes at a time. Once you start waking up again, cut it back and wait a bit longer before you start trying to expand again.
posted by quiet coyote at 8:47 PM on September 3, 2016

I don't know what to do about the waking up, but I did make "bedtime mixes" of The Office and Parks & Recreation where I cut out loud, startling things like opening credits and I let it play loud enough to listen to it but low enough that I can fall asleep. I have a little laptop stand next to my bed and I listen whilst wearing an eye mask to block any light. It helps prevent me from thinking about work.

Do you work late? I find if I do work close to before bedtime, I always wake up early worrying about it. Giving yourself enough time to decompress and unwind from thinking about work might help too.
posted by AppleTurnover at 12:12 AM on September 4, 2016

I have a log history of not sleeping through the night, and have figured out that it's best, at least for me, to get out of bed once I realize that I'm not falling back to sleep any time soon. My main strategy when I want more sleep is not to do anything related to starting my day. No reading the news, no starting the coffee, no physical activity, no checking Facebook, etc. I might browse the web or listen to music or both. Or play a mindless game of Tetris.

Something that really helps me get back to sleep is my recent discovery of a YouTube channel where the person makes tea and/or shares art supply items that she's recently picked up in Beijing. It has a soothing, pleasurable ASMR effect on me when she explains the difference, say, among different calligraphy brushes. I do not watch these videos, but turn them on at a low-ish volume and listen to them as I lay on the couch. I'm always asleep before they finish.

Here's one of them to try.
posted by Short Attention Sp at 4:51 AM on September 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

One of the things that helped me a lot when my brain was doing this very thing was when my therapist asked me, "How much time would you say you spend worrying about work?" I estimated (yeah it was rough at that time) perhaps 15-20 hours over the course of the week. He said, "So you're effectively working about 60 hours a week. It's no wonder that you're exhausted all the time." And I started making a real effort to save my work thoughts for when I was at work. It took a lot of trying but I think I'm getting closer.
posted by fairlynearlyready at 9:54 PM on September 5, 2016

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