By Graham Clifford
We've all been there. It's 3 o'clock in the morning and our night's sleep is interrupted by a bout of anxiety we simply can't repress.
As we toss and turn trying to get back to sleep the minutes on the digital clock on the bedside locker tick on by – with each passing one our efforts feeling futile.
Our minds start racing and we focus on issues such as financial worries, health concerns and work quandaries.
"During the day we block out a lot of stresses which are uncomfortable but when the lights go out the ability to do that disappears and suddenly we can't stop thinking about such worries," explains Dr Claire Hayes, a clinical psychologist and director with the AWARE charity.
"There are three main principles used to explain why that feeling of panic grows when we wake at night. Firstly we try so hard to get back to sleep that we start to get anxious when we can't, then we start to worry about not working well the next day because of a lack of shut-eye and finally the more general worries bubbling away under the surface rise to the top."
Molehills quickly become mountains in our minds. So what should we do to when the 3am anxiety takes over?
"It's important to accept the situation you're in. Say to yourself 'right, I'm awake, but so are so many others such as night-workers, pilots, women giving birth and so on', it's all part of a bid to distract yourself. You want to switch channels – to go from the horror movie you can't turn off into a different kind of movie.
"Relaxation exercises such as breathing calmly helps reduce adrenalin and counting sheep does actually work."
As people get older they can require less sleep but many worry when they wake early. Dr Hayes believes the additional waking time can be utilised rather than cursed.
"It's common that older people require less sleep – if you are up two hours earlier than normal try to use the time productively by reading or doing something else to relax. You can think of it as two extra hours in your life to use."
We're told to avoid caffeine and stimulant foods such as cheese before bed-time and never to bring work-related reading material into the bedroom.
"If it's a persistent problem then you should visit your GP"