Why people have dark thoughts at night

by Marc Wilson / 02 October, 2017

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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.

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