The real reason we wake up at 3am and can’t stop worrying

Hands up if you find yourself waking up at 3am and then can’t go back to sleep because you can’t stop worrying!

Yep, our hands are high up in the air.

But why is this? Why do so many of us wake up at 3am on the dot? Not 2am or 1am, but it’s always the 3am mark…

And why is it that when we want to go back to sleep, we just can’t? Drifting off back into a peaceful slumber usually happens around five minutes before our alarms wake us for work!

So why do we wake up a 3am and can’t stop worrying?

Greg Murray, professor and director of the Centre for Mental Health, Swinburne University of Technology, says this nighttime occurrence is very common.

In fact, there are biological reasons behind it. 

“In a normal night’s sleep, our neurobiology reaches a turning point around 3am or 4am,” he tells the Conversation.

“Core body temperature starts to rise, sleep drive is reducing (because we’ve had a chunk of sleep), secretion of melatonin (the sleep hormone) has peaked, and levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) are increasing as the body prepares to launch us into the day.”

We actually wake up at various stages throughout the night but during the second half of the night, our sleep is lighter than the heavier sleep at the beginning of the night.

Add a bit of stress and there is a good chance that waking will become a fully self-aware state.

“Around this time in the sleep cycle, we’re at our lowest ebb physically and cognitively,” explains Professor Murray.

“From nature’s viewpoint, this is meant to be a time of physical and emotional recovery, so it’s understandable that our internal resources are low.

“But we also lack other resources in the middle of the night – social connections, cultural assets, all the coping skills of an adult are unavailable at this time. With none of our human skills and capital, we are left alone in the dark with our thoughts.”

The real reason we wake up at 3am and can’t stop worrying

The pandemic is causing more people to wake up in the night and worry

Professor Murray adds that especially at the minute, during the pandemic, that more people are experiencing 3am wakings.

The real reason we wake up at 3am and can’t stop worrying

Stress also impacts sleep in insomnia, where people become hyper vigilant about being awake,” he states.

“Concerns about being awake when one ‘should’ be asleep can cause the person to jolt themselves into anxious wakefulness whenever they go through a light sleep phase.”

“The truth is, our mind isn’t really looking for a solution at 3am. We might think we are problem solving by mentally working over issues at this hour, but this isn’t really problem solving; it’s problem solving’s evil twin – worry.

“Worry is identifying a problem, ruminating about the worst possible outcome and neglecting the resources we would bring to bear should the non-preferred outcome actually occur.”

What can we do about it?

  • Breathing techniques
  • Meditating
  • Seek medical help from a GP or sleep specialist

“I bring my attention to my senses, specifically the sound of my breath. When I notice thoughts arising, I gently bring my attention back to the sound of breathing (pro tip: earplugs help you hear the breath and get out of your head),” adds Professor Murray.

“Sometimes this meditation works. Sometimes it doesn’t. 

“If I’m still caught in negative thinking after 15 or 20 minutes, I follow the advice from cognitive behavioural therapy, and get up, turn on dim light and read.

“Waking and worrying at 3am is very understandable and very human. But in my opinion, not a great habit to get into.”

About The Healthy Mummy’s MIND, BODY & BREATH sessions

There are three Healthy Mummy MIND.BODY.BREATH sessions for you to choose from:

  • 3 minute
  • 5 minute
  • 10 minute

All Healthy sessions begin with a MIND.BODY.BREATH warm-up, to get you settled and prepared.


We recommend you begin your Healthy Mummy guided MIND.BODY.BREATH practice by doing it twice a week.

Start slow and gradually grow your practice so that it becomes a habit. Your aim is to be able to do it daily. Set a reminder for yourself as a morning or bedtime ritual. Find a time that works for you.

Find your inner peace and relax with the awesome meditation section we now have on the 28 Day Weight Loss Challenge.