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Why Am I Waking Up at 3 a.m. Every Night? | Sleep Reset

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February 7, 2023

Why Am I Waking Up at 3 a.m. Every Night?

Medically reviewed by: 

Waking up at 3 a.m. or any time before your alarm can be a disturbing experience, but it's actually very common. While the exact cause of this phenomenon is unknown, there are some things we know about why you might wake up earlier than expected.

Are you wondering if you have insomnia? Take our Insomnia Quiz to find out if you have insomnia.

Your Sleep Cycle Is Turning Over

Your body's natural sleep cycle consists of a few stages: transition, light sleep, deep sleep, and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. On average, you can cycle through these stages about four or five times during the night, with each cycle lasting around 90 minutes.

What does it mean when you wake up at 3 a.m.? The early wake-up can indicate that your body has finished one complete cycle and has switched back into a lighter sleep mode. Before modern electricity, westerners commonly split their rest into two shifts. The human body can be naturally attuned to a biphasic sleep pattern.

Nighttime disturbances

External factors may be causing you to wake up with anxiety in the middle of the night. Loud noises, such as car horns and sirens, can disrupt your sleep cycle and jolt you out of a deep snooze.

Subtle noises can tear into your sleep as well. Sounds barely noticeable during the day, like your upstairs neighbors vacuuming the floor or rearranging the living room, become major irritants when trying to sleep. 

If your sleep is disturbed by an outside factor, you may not be able to get rid of the noise. However, you can take steps to minimize its effect on you. Improve your sleep hygiene and provide a shield against unwanted noise with earplugs or a white noise machine. 

Nocturnal Anxiety

Stress and anxiety can interfere with your night’s rest. Enjoying a full sleep when your mind is filled with anxious thoughts is challenging. If your stress is temporary or you can easily pin it to a specific cause, like an upcoming exam, you can try to beat it with mindfulness. 

Write in your journal, meditate, and try to focus on the present moment instead of the future. 

If you routinely wake up in a panic in the middle of the night, you might be experiencing nocturnal anxiety. A therapist or a dedicated relaxation program can help you maintain a calmer state.

Sleep Disorders

Sometimes, a sleep disorder is the underlying cause of your 3 am wake-up calls. These disorders may not be noticeable when you’re awake, making them difficult to diagnose. 

Sleep apnea, for instance, causes you to stop breathing briefly throughout the night and choke yourself out of deep sleep.

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS) is another disorder that can destroy your rest. RLS gets characterized by a strong urge to move your legs and an uncomfortable, tingling sensation. The discomfort causes you to wake up confused and groggy long before you’ve rested.

Perhaps the most common sleep disorder is insomnia. If you have insomnia, your body frequently struggles to fall and stay asleep. You may feel anxious upon waking at 3 am because your body is simply getting enough sleep. 

If you think that a sleep disorder might be what’s affecting you, it’s essential to find professional help. A doctor or a sleep specialist can identify and treat any underlying medical issues causing your sleeplessness.

Sleeping Through The Night Isn’t Just a Dream

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBTI) is a method of treating sleep issues that has been around since the 1980s. CBTI teaches you how to reduce stress and anxiety by reframing your thoughts. 

Imagine you've been waking up at 3 a.m. for the past four days. On night five, your dread of waking up early can be what wakes you up. CBTI teaches you to focus on the positive, that night five could be the night where you sleep through the evening without interruption and take a step closer to overcoming your insomnia.

It’s also important to be realistic. You aren’t always going to drift off as soon as you hit the pillow. CBTI helps you to learn how to let go of your expectations about sleep.

CBTI will help you get back on track and enjoy a full night’s rest when practiced regularly. It may take some time and effort, but sleeping through the night is possible with CBTI.

If you’re looking for help to sleep more soundly without your midnight wake-up, take the sleep quiz to receive personalized recommendations on how to sleep better.