Why people have dark thoughts at night

by Marc Wilson / 02 October, 2017
RelatedArticlesModule - Dark thoughts

If you’re plagued by dark thoughts in the wee small hours, regular meals and exercise can help.

Reader Mireille asks, “Why are things so much worse at night?” Illustrating the question is a minion cartoon character saying, “Me: let me sleep”, and a picture of a brain with the words, “Lol, no. Let’s stay awake and remember every stupid decision we made in life.”

I’d love to say I have no idea what Mireille is on about, but I am an anxious person by trade, familiar with the 3am wake-and-ruminate cycle. Rumination, writes one online sage, is when your mind acts like a washing machine, tumbling those thoughts over and over.

She is asking a great question. The first part of the answer is the reason we wake at 3am and ruminate in the first place. People like me – and maybe Mireille – don’t experience 3am wakefulness every night. There are times when it’s more likely, when we’ve got a lot of stuff – or particularly heavy stuff – going on in our lives. So when you wake in the night – and most people do between four and nine times without remembering doing so – you’re less likely to be able to get back to sleep if you have a lot on your plate, particularly if you make the mistake of thinking.

There is a cycle to our moods over the course of the day, and one way we know this is from research using what’s called ecological momentary assessment. This involves prompting people to note, at different times, their positive and negative moods. You can do this by giving them a device that is set to prompt them at random times, or you can text them and get them to do the rating. Do this with enough people enough times and you get a sense of the trajectory of positive and negative moods over the course of the day.

The first thing to note is that it’s not the hour of the day that’s important but where you are in your sleep-wake cycle. Positive emotions start low when we wake, rapidly improve over the next couple of hours and peak roughly seven hours later. For me, that’s about 1pm. And then they decline, a little less steeply than they increased, but ending up even lower than at the start of the day, roughly about 16 hours after we woke.

Interestingly, studies of Twitter show something subtly different. Tweets using upbeat language do increase early in the day, then decline until the end of the workday, before increasing again and having another peak at about evening mealtime. The pattern is much the same for weekends, except that the baseline shifts upwards – everyone seems a bit more positive on the weekends.

Of course, if things are busy, you might find getting to sleep at all is the problem, because the moment the light goes off, there’s nothing to stop your thoughts turning to whatever’s preoccupying you. Cue washing machine. So one reason things seem worse at night is that that’s when things usually slow down and you have time to start worrying.

One way to help prevent this is to make sure you have enough energy by eating regularly and exercising. Yes, exercise can improve your energy.

When people are feeling depressed, one of the best therapies is to force yourself to get up and go for a walk. If you’re waking at 3am, don’t just lie there till dawn. Get up after half an hour if you’re sure you’re not starting to drift off. Go for a whiz or glass of water – or both, probably. As ever, if you’ve tried everything Dr Google recommends, then maybe it’s time to see your GP and get a proper expert involved.

This article was first published in the September 2, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


The art and soul of Te Papa
88235 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Arts

The art and soul of Te Papa

by Sally Blundell

Twenty years ago, Te Papa opened with little space to exhibit its national art collection. Now, it is showing off its new dedicated art space.

Read more
Does chewing more help curb your appetite?
87918 2018-03-17 00:00:00Z Nutrition

Does chewing more help curb your appetite?

by Jennifer Bowden

Our appetite-control hormones are affected by chewing, according to some studies, whereas others show no change.

Read more
How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the crowd to queen of the stage
88396 2018-03-16 09:42:00Z Music

How Auckland rapper JessB went from face in the cr…

by Vomle Springford

Auckland rapper JessB is making her mark in the male-dominated hip-hop scene with the release of her much-anticipated debut EP Bloom.

Read more
Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of military aircraft
88389 2018-03-16 07:02:40Z Politics

Defence Minister Ron Mark defends his use of milit…

by Craig McCulloch

Defence Minister Ron Mark is denying any inappropriate use of military aircraft after revelations he has used them to fly to and from home.

Read more
Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close to school
88387 2018-03-16 06:55:59Z Crime

Corrections moves sex offenders from lodge close t…

by Eva Corlett and Sally Murphy

Corrections says it will review its processes after it was discovered 11 sex offenders were living less than a kilometre away from an Auckland school.

Read more
Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports to New Zealand
88222 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Rodney Walshe: One of Ireland's best-known exports…

by Clare de Lore

When he arrived here from Ireland in 1960, Rodney Walshe had nothing but a suit and the gift of the gab. They took him a long way.

Read more
Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming home
88378 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z Profiles

Derek Handley talks Trump, business and coming hom…

by Clare de Lore

The nomadic New Zealander who’s set his sights on space travel is no longer an alien.

Read more
How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk to celebrated jeweller
88263 2018-03-16 00:00:00Z What's on

How Lisa Walker went from teenage Wellington punk …

by Mike White

The Anarchist jeweller has a remarkable show at new Te Papa gallery, Toi Art.

Read more