Why do our demons insist on visiting us after dark? Long-term sufferer Kate Faithfull-Williams tackles the causes of night-time stress.
At first glance, I maintain a pretty good facade of looking like a woman who has her sh*t together. But beneath my illuminating concealer lies an anxious husk of a human who is often wide awake panicking between 3am and 5am, a frustration I’ve lived with on and off for most of my adult life.
In the dark, I’m anxious about everything from how I’ll meet the deadline on this feature to whether that lump behind my ear could be the start of a brain tumour. I’ll stress about the floorboards I painted white in the spare room (in a bid to create a calm space) and whether I’ve trashed yet another Victorian feature of my home, thus devaluing it (the closest thing I’ve got to a pension), and wrecking my chances of retiring before I’m 80. I’m in a spin, even panicking that my level of night-time anxiety is not serious enough to qualify me as the best writer for this story. It’s catastrophe thinking (having anxiety about having anxiety) at its worst.
As I write this in the calm, sane light of day, I realise my personal hell does not exactly have the tightrope tension of The Girl On The Train. But, in the moment, worrying about all manner of smaller concerns can take on an apocalyptic quality. This is the unique horror of night-time anxiety. And it’s a serious issue, according to the journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences because, over time, it can impair our sleep so badly that it leads to a weakened immune system, increased risk of heart disease and, you’ve guessed it, more anxiety.
The trouble with night-time
“Eighty per cent of people say their worries whirlwind out of control at night,” says Nicky Lidbetter, chief executive of support group Anxiety UK. “With stress, we tend to worry about a specific, tangible problem, but with anxiety, we’re less aware of what we’re anxious about, so our reaction becomes the problem and we start feeling anxious about being anxious.” It’s heartening to discover I’m not alone but like many other sufferers I know, come daybreak, I wouldn’t really call myself anxious. So why does it strike so hard after dark?
“It’s down to the lack of distractions,” says Lidbetter. “Our days are often frantic and, at night, when activity slows, we’re forced to confront our thoughts.” This resonates with me deeply – as perhaps it will with you. All day, I’m frantically busy, running to meetings, juggling emails, making lists, on high alert in case I drop a ball.
Herein lies the problem, says Dr Larry Rosen, an expert in the psychology of technology and author of iDisorder. “Anxiety is caused by our body reacting to chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters, chiefly cortisol, the stress hormone,” he says. “The anxiety we feel during the day is masked by the intensity of other neurotransmitters firing in our brains. Night is when our bodies tick through vital repairs to ready us for the next day – but because there’s little else going on during this downtime, cortisol takes over and our bodies react even more strongly to the surge of neurotransmitters. This overrides relaxing chemicals like melatonin and serotonin needed for sleep.” And kapow, you’re awake again, panicking. “Instead of drifting into the deep, restorative stage of rest, your mind is processing information from the day,” continues Rosen.
Ironically, knowing these are the vital hours when my body is carrying out essential repairs and that I’m potentially sabotaging the opportunity to feel better makes me more anxious the next time I find myself awake at 4am. In fact, it only takes a few twisted leaps of logic to conclude that I’m clearly heading for a serious illness thanks to my inability to achieve a good night’s rest.