We all have anxious thoughts sometimes – but why do they strike so hard at night?

Anxiety attacks occur with the greatest frequency in the early hours of the morning between 1am and 4am – waking us up or not letting us fall asleep in the first place. The cause tends to be something that has happened during the day. But with so many distractions in place, so much work to attend to, and so many people to interact with, we don’t have the time to dwell on things – instead we are frantically shifting our attention from one activity to the next.

As the quiet of the night descends and everything slows down, the thoughts that have been pushed to the background begin to emerge. With less external stimulation, our minds are free to run wild.

Our physical context doesn’t help either – when all lights are out and the world is dark and quiet, we feel totally alone. Simply being aware that everyone is asleep and knowing that it is difficult to find someone to talk to heightens feelings of isolation and worry. How, then, do we deal with those night-time dreads?

Now forming the right habits, having a good night-time routine, and creating an appropriate sleeping environment are all important factors in getting ourselves into a calm state before bed. But, in the small hours of the night we can still feel overcome with anxiety as we finally begin to process the events of the day and thoughts start to run wild. The steps below provide you with some tips on things you can do in those exact moments when you find yourself wide-awake in bed in the middle of the night.

Step 1: Focus on a different story

Night-time anxiety is a cycle fuelled by our anxious thoughts and wild imagination. Once it starts, it’s easy for it to build momentum and keep going. We often begin by pondering a matter that’s on our minds and envision what could happen. We create a hypothetical scenario in our heads and then keep going from there – building and building on this story. It’s hard to break out of the cycle when you have now presented your brain with a new (and made-up) problem that it needs to solve. After a few minutes, the end product of our imagination typically bears the vaguest (if any) resemblance to the present reality. So rather than building on a story that is centred around something that heightens your anxiety, consider a different story. We are always hypothesising, plagued by ‘what if’s’, but it is better to direct this towards an imaginary scenario that is more pleasant. What would happen if I found a bag of money? Where exactly would I like to go and what would I do if I visit Turkey? The important thing here is that you re-focus on something with a narrative that you can expand on.

Step 2: Give yourself a little reminder

Chances are this is not your first time, and you’ve had a few (or many) other occasions when you have laid awake, catastrophising a situation in the middle of the night. But what happens when you wake up in the morning of the next day? Bright-eyed, you look back and – with a degree of surprise – realise that the problem you were so paranoid about no longer seems quite as scary. Be mindful of this and remind yourself that you are just overthinking. You don’t have to reason with yourself or try to rationalise and challenge your thoughts in the middle of the night – in that half-awake, half-panic-stricken state, this would be a tall order. But you can remind yourself that it is just a case of your thoughts running wild. “I know I’m overthinking. When I wake up tomorrow this will not seem so bad. I have done this before.”

Step 3: Ground yourself

Meditation is often quoted as the go-to tool for anxiety. And whilst the evidence is clear that it helps, partway through a midnight anxiety attack it can be almost impossible to simply ‘let go’ of all thoughts. A tactic closely related to it, however, is grounding. It is a practice we can perform, that connects us with the physical world and pulls us away from the intrusive thoughts. There are countless grounding techniques; anything from submerging your hands in cool water or holding a block of ice and focusing your attention on the sensation, through to taking notice of the feeling in every part of your body, e.g. the strand of hair falling on your forehead, the weight of the clothes on your back, the speed of your heartbeat in your chest, the tightness of your leg muscles, and so on.

Step 4: Write it down

Midnight panic can also happen as a result of suddenly remembering all the tasks that we may need to do. Have a long list of things that you worry about forgetting? Write everything out on a piece of paper. This way rather than allowing them to keep swirling in your brain, you will have a game plan when you wake up.


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