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Were you up all night again? Tips to help you beat 4 am angst

Arguments you could have navigated better, vital to-dos that you’re not sure you’ve done, the quiet whisperings of an anxious mind — these are a few of our least favourite things
By Vanessa Viegas
PUBLISHED ON MAR 05, 2021 05:45 PM IST

Arguments you could have navigated better, vital to-dos that you’re not sure you’ve done, the quiet whisperings of an anxious mind — these are a few of our least favourite things. And they tend to pop into the head just as one is rolling over, mid-snooze, till you’re suddenly wide awake in the dead of night, thoughts rattling around, unable to sleep again.

It’s referred to as 4 am angst. There are even playlists for it on Spotify. Though it would take some song to lull one back to sleep once that list of misdemeanours, missed opportunities and mis-speaks has started playing.

The reason 4 am angst is so hard to shake, psychologists say, is that there’s nothing else for the mind to latch on to. During the day, there are a variety of strategies used, almost as a reflex, to keep anxious thoughts at bay — work, chores, workouts, conversation, cooking, TV, hobbies, food.

Most people are task-focused during the day too, since daytime activities are usually well-defined and time-bound. Bedtime brings all that mental activity to a halt and a mind in this state, when stimulated, can find it much more difficult to shift gears.

Before you know it, 10 minutes has stretched into two hours, and now you have one more thing to worry about. “At night, with no other distractions and no other thoughts in the mind, problems tends to feel magnified as well,” says Dr Vikas Maurya, head of department and director for sleep disorders and pulmonology at Fortis Hospital, Delhi. “You wake mid-slumber worrying about one thing, the worries multiply and the cycle can continue all night.”

The relative quiet and isolation of night-time doesn’t help, creating a predisposition to catastrophise. What starts with a random thought about something that needs to be done the next day can become a list of anticipated problems, each appearing bigger and more inescapable than it will in the morning.

* Step 1: Recognise the pattern. Typically, a problem becomes magnified in the mind and leads to thoughts of another problem and then another until the mind is leaping from one to the next in a loop. Break the loop by reminding yourself that the problems aren’t looming; they just look larger because your mind is empty. At 4 am, it may seem like the very worst thing that you let slip to a colleague the personal details of another colleague’s life. In the morning, it will no longer feel like the end of life as you know it.

* Step 2: Face your concern and ask yourself clarifying questions about it. First, what parts of this problem are still within your control? Second, what can you do about those specific areas? You’re going to find a way out in the morning; you might as well start to find your way there now.

* Step 3: Talk. If you have someone you can reach out to or call, do so. “It’s good to talk things through with a friend or family member who might help you see a solution, or see the problem differently,” says Dr Maurya.

* Step 4: Calm, don’t overstimulate, yourself. Don’t reach for the phone and avoid looking at the clock. Instead, try deep breathing and relaxation techniques. Go to a happy place (by this point in the pandemic, you likely have more than one).

* Step 5: Breathe. Calming the body is integral to calming the mind, which is now in the fight or flight mode — characterised by a rush of adrenaline and quickened breathing and heart rate. “There are simple meditation and breathing exercises you can do while in bed,” says Dr Maurya. “If you still find it difficult to tune out, get up and do something else, in another room, until you’re sleepy again.”

Reading or writing are good options. They give the mind something else to focus on and can also help the mind wind back down towards sleep. Avoid screens. In fact, Dr Maurya says that if you avoid your phone for at least an hour before bed, you may sleep better through the night to begin with.

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