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

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Marc Wil­son

Things to try if you’re plagued by dark thoughts in the wee small hours.

Reader Mireille asks in an email, “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

Pos­i­tive emo­tions start low when we wake and peak roughly seven hours later.

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.

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