Skip to content

When you wake up worried about something, do you toss and turn to Dr. Google, Ph.D? I know plenty of people who do this—and what they usually find are more reasons to fret.

Fretting is one of those activities that is better postponed until tomorrow. Unless you can put it off forever, of course. Here are three ways to procrastinate in good faith, whether your worries are vague and apocalyptic, or specific and personal. Each is better than seeking advice from a search engine in the wee hours.

Worst-Case Scenario

“What’s the worst that can happen?”

Most people ask that question so they can show you how unfounded your fears are. To laugh together at your baroque imaginings. That can take the edge off, but I don’t think it’s nearly as helpful as treating our fears as if they could be real.

Everyone has her most-feared scenario. For some, it’s earthquake. Aneurysm. Terrorism. Bankruptcy. For me, it’s being dumped. I’ve been happily married for years, and I still wake up in the middle of the night, dreading abandonment.

This is an old, old fear, from a time when being left alone meant something really different from dividing possessions and looking for apartments.

Which is why it’s good to look more closely at what it is we’re frightened of, the worst that can happen. Am I really afraid of apartment hunting? No. It’s a drag, but it’s not terrifying. I know everything about how to do that.

No, I’m actually afraid that in being left, everyone will know I’m unlovable. What?! Three-year-old me must have thought that. Sixth-decade me is a little sturdier. Sixth-decade me has access to things like the Goop newsletter, which reminds me that no relationship is a hedge against existential reality. (You just never know where you’ll hear the ring of truth.)

So then I review. OK, worst case: I’ve been left for good, out of the blue. I look for an apartment and start over. Best case: I am happily married and live with my husband and I also live with some existential loneliness anyway.

See? The worst case and the best case are both realistic, and not completely different! Weirdly comforting, isn’t it, to take yourself seriously.

Side note: This is not a one-and-done kind of thing, because the deep mind doesn’t work that way. Our terrors will come back to haunt us; that’s what they do. I just run through my little scenarios, yup, yup, apartment, yup, I’m keeping the dutch oven, yup, existential loneliness, OK and good night!

In the MDK Shop
You don’t have to be perfect at bullet journaling for bullet journaling to improve your life.

Check for Errors in Thinking

Perhaps you don’t find apocalypse plans weirdly comforting? Then by all means poke holes in your fears. Dr. Faith Harper, author of The Revolution Will Include Cookies, writes about the different kinds of cognitive distortions that can color our thinking—until we get hip to them. Here are some of my favorites from her book This Is Your Brain on Depression (interpretations, and any errors, are mine):

  1. Polarized thinking: no middle ground, no third solution, it’s either one way, or the opposite, and probably neither of them look good. A rested brain can find a thousand solutions. A 3 a.m. brain, not so much.
  2. Control fallacy: you’ve got to make the right choice. Everything depends on it! But which choice is right? There’s a question to keep you awake. Reality is that nothing in our connected world depends on a single choice. We’ll always have more choices to make, even about whatever’s got us panicked right now.
  3. Filtering: literally millions of possibilities in any situation, but we can only entertain the one that matches our mood of doom. We only see reasons for failure, because that’s all we’re looking for. Maybe we just lay down on the wrong side of the bed.
  4. Emotional reasoning: we feel some kind of way, therefore that’s how it is. We’re worried, therefore there’s something to be worried about. We feel ashamed, therefore we’ve done something wrong. We feel depressed, therefore life objectively stinks.

Dr. Faith Harper lists many more, most of which you would recognize. So where’s the off switch for distorted thinking? It can be pretty hard to find in the dark, which is why I’ve memorized approximately where to look. As soon I had a nice set of labels—oh, there it is, just where I left it: Polarized Thinking! right next to the Fallacy of Heaven’s Reward—it got a lot easier to shut that thinking down.

Once we can escape faulty thinking, it’s much easier to deploy the final tactic:

Put It Off until Tomorrow (Unless You Can Defer Even Longer)

I’ve begun using a dead simple rule: If it’s past dark, it’s not problem-solving time, The End. Is it after dinner? The only problem I really need to solve right now is the washing up. Is it the middle of the night? Definitely defer.

A brain that’s been working all day isn’t going to come up with a genius solution by running in the same tight circle over and over. And that’s all you’ve got the juice for in the middle of the night.  If you want to gas up and go someplace better, your brain needs rest.

This method works best if you build trust by really addressing the issue when you’re fresh. Knowing that you can count on yourself to take action, instead of continuing to procrastinate, lets you relax and makes it easier to go back to sleep.

So a quick acknowledgment, like “Yes I need a new babysitter, and I will tackle that tomorrow” lets your brain move the problem from the “pending: URGENT!” list to the “pending; under control” list, magically lowering the stress response and reassuring us that this is a non-immediate problem.

In fact, I have come to believe that the only problems requiring immediate action are the kind that don’t require reflection. We don’t fret about calling 911 if we smell smoke. That’s an immediate problem, and it doesn’t ask us to get worried.

Everything else will look better in the morning. And if you can get some good sleep, perhaps the solution will even come to you in a dream.

What about you? What works when you find yourself riding the worry train in the middle of the night? Let us know in the comments.

Image: Vrouw in nachtkleding, met een kaars, Nicolaas Verkolje, after Godfried Schalcken, 1683 – 1726. Used with permission.

About The Author

Max Daniels is a research-based life coach whose weekly emails make us laugh with recognition and rethink everything we thought we knew.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


  • How handy to find this in my inbox when I woke in the middle of the night ready for the usual panic over my worry list. One thing I find helpful is to try not to worry about things over which I have no control – world peace, global warming and other people’s behavior spring to mind.

  • When that phantom worry-hamster starts running in its squeaky wheel through my brain, I know I’ve got to short circuit it so I usually open my kindle to a nice uncomplicated fun read. It mostly doesn’t take more than a page or so and I’m out again. On the odd occasion when I’ve gotten too wide awake for that to work, at least I have an enjoyable book to keep me company.

    • I like the idea of a ‘worry-hamster’, frantically turning round and round in a ball.

  • A while back, someone shared a prayer from the New Zealand prayer book. It could be adapted to many faiths- or even none at all. It’s a study in letting go:

    it is night.

    The night is for stillness.
    Let us be still in the presence of God.

    It is night after a long day.
    What has been done has been done;
    what has not been done has not been done;
    let it be.

    The night is dark.
    Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
    rest in you.

    The night is quiet.
    Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
    all dear to us,
    and all who have no peace.

    The night heralds the dawn.
    Let us look expectantly to a new day,
    new joys,
    new possibilities.

    In your name we pray.

    • fuguestateknits : That is Beautiful!
      I know sooo many folks who could use that, as a prayer or as a meditation.
      May I share it on FB, with credit, of course? <3

    • Amen and amen! Thank you for sharing this.

    • This has long been one of my favorite prayers. Thanks for sharing it here! <3

    • That is beautiful. I took a screen shot so I can read it whenever I want or need to. Thanks so much for sharing!

    • I’m not religious, but that is beautiful, and can easily be used as a meditation. Thanks for sharing.

    • So beautiful.

    • Wow, that is helpful…thank you!

    • I’m not religious at all, but this is so beautiful, and definitely something I will remember and keep with me. Thank you for sharing.

    • When I wake up in the night, I make lists in my head–grocery, to do, Christmas gifts I want or want to give to family and friends, things i want to knit. If I’m still awake after that, I write a story in my head. It’s a world I can control, and soon I drift back to sleep.

    • I love that one.

    • Thank you got this. Making it my own.

    • That is so calming. Thanks for sharing this .

  • For me, I’m often afraid I’ll forget about the thing that woke me up in the night, which is usually something I need to do, so I write it down. That’s almost as good as doing it. Then I force myself to think of a happy/relaxing memory, and try to engage my senses in that memory. (Lately it’s holding my toddler: the weight of her in my arms, the smell of her hair, the sweet things she says.) I can usually drift off to sleep pretty quickly. (Just re-reading what I wrote made me feel all relaxed and gooey!)

  • Prayer always works for me.

  • Well this is definitely one for the Saved Articles. Now if I just had a sleeping toddler to hold …

  • I have been awake tossing and turning in since 3am so this is very timely! I try counting ( it never works for me!) making up a story that has nothing to do with my life (that usually puts me to sleep. I like to keep my room dark and cool, and I run A fan. If all else fails I have turned the tv back on.

    • If you read this you can tell I’m tired!(

  • I keep a mindless knitting project nearby. If my brain really won’t let go of me, I turn on the light and knit, of course!

  • A couple of decades ago, as a young mum of a toddler & an infant, I had a bad case of nightly worst-case scenario-ing. I took to keeping a “gratitude journal” where each evening I would write down five things I felt grateful about. Some days it was a stretch and “folded laundry” was on there! But it helped me re-frame the events of my day and find the sweet moments. Now, when I wake a-fretting, I practice some deep breathing (fill lungs in for a count of 5, same air out more slowly for a count of 7) and I generate that gratitude list in my head.

  • Thank you Max. I have been struggling with insomnia for quite some time now… and this spoke to me: “if you build trust by really addressing the issue when you’re fresh. Knowing that you can count on yourself to take action, instead of continuing to procrastinate, lets you relax and makes it easier to go back to sleep”.
    Now I need to rebuild trust in my ability to tackle ‘things’ upfront and finally sweep Mr Procrastination out the door…

  • I try to beat worry at the pass. Before I go upstairs to bed I make a short list of priority things to do the next day. If it is on paper, i can usually clear my mind and start my bedtime routine with a deep breath

  • What usually works for me is to knit in my head. I imagine my knitting, the needles in my hands, the yarn. It’s actually hard to imagine the things my hands do when knitting- as it’s automatic, I never have to think about it. In my imagination, I watch my hands make stitches. This works for me 9 times out of 10.

    • This is a great idea, knit! Have a simple garter stitch ready or a repetitive dull action to do in your mind and go to it, and then do it without thinking or elaborating – – – instead of wondering “why am I thinking of this nonsense right now in the middle of the night-nothing-nowhere-noway-this-dream”.

    • I do that, too! ❤️

    • OMG , Meredith I do the same thing!!!!! And it does work. This is why I love MDK, It always seems to address things that are going on in my life (other than planning my next knitting project) and It is comforting to know I’m not alone in what I’ve been experiencing. The mind is amazing. No matter how I try to let go of my worries before I go too sleep my brain always comes up with the wildest scenerios that leave me feeling horrible ( my mind, I think , is really another person in my head who should be a screen writer for their vivid imagination cuz in my waking hours I could never contrive such scenes. Anyway, when I wake up tonight in a panic and start “brain knitting “ I will remember someone of my fellow knitters is up with me too- and that is a comfort.
      P.S my oldest daughter is named Meredith- beautiful name too.

    • I too knit in my head when I can’t get back to sleep…I have figured out knitting snags when I doze off & the bext day I try out my nighttime knitting “solution”. Also I knit in my mind when riding in the car on the interstate…my anxiety melts away…and my husband drives along in peace instead of hearing me panicking when cars or trucks come too close or fast to my comfort zone

  • Thank you!! Sometimes that worry train just zooms past my stop and other times it sits at the station and loads up on worry until it has a hard time getting up speed.

  • I’ve declared the bed a No-Worry Zone. If I need to worry, I tell myself, I have to get out of bed and go sit on the couch and do it. This works because I am so very lazy that I will do almost anything to stay in bed, which short-circuits the worry.

  • Interesting, and genuinely helpful for nighttime worries.

    Now … what about busy-brain, in which the things you worry / obsess about are of absolutely no importance?

    I have been known to lie awake most of the night “worrying” about totally stupid things, like “Why did Character X on TV program Y make that stupid statement to Character Z? Why didn’t he say Q? I’d have said Q.” And then proceed to mentally create the perfect response. Or other utterly irrelevant nonsense.

    Any ideas?

    • I have that brain running off on its own thing, too. I find that mentally shouting STOP! works to stop it and let me in peace. Sounds weird, but my brain seems to get it, like a little kid whose attention you have to get before she’ll listen.

    • Oh how I love this question! I could be totally wrong, but am wondering if the questions that haunt you really are of no importance? To me, they seem like they might have metaphorical significance, or something like that. Maybe X saying that stupid thing reminded you of the time someone said something equally stupid to you, and it really bugged you. Kinda like the way lyrics will get lodged in our brain, and then we figure out Oh yeah! Love really IS all I need right now.

      OR… Maybe you would make a killer script doctor (!) and your mind is trying to tell you so.

      • I’ve little doubt my ridiculous 3am worries represent something existential for me – but if I think about THAT, that will be more waking time pondering and running on the hamster wheel. 🙂 I suppose I should work on seeing the humor of how ‘should we look for a new snowblower this year before the first storm?’ can be followed by ‘was that blue shirt I wore yesterday too bright?’ and then ‘I think I’ll make some pickled beets next weekend’…and so on!

    • For a busy brain I listen to the”Sleep With Me” podcast. I love it and Scooters stories and style puts me right to sleep. Highly recommended!

      • Works every time…. going to sleep…. Middle of night…. too early in morning
        Free.., Google it….over 800 episodes
        LOVE IT

    • Yes to this! My 3am insomnia is equally filled with real and not-real worries. Utter nonsense, which has no solution because it’s not an actual problem, can keep my brain churning every bit as long as the ‘did I pay the oil bill?’ :-/

  • I for one recite the Lord’s prayer & usually by the 3rd time I ‘ve fallen asleep!! Works every time!!

    • I say the Serenity Prayer which makes me aware that I have no control over people, places, things. The only thing I do have control over is myself; my thoughts, reactions, perceptions. It’s very freeing;)

      • I listen to verypink knits! Thank you!

  • Wow. This is well timed! Have just shared it with my 15 year old daughter who was complaining this morning about waking in the night and not being able to get back to sleep! Thank you.

  • Thanks. I have used a few of these strategies too. I have found them very helpful.

  • When I wake up worried, I try to think of an action that I can take the next day. For example, if I’m worried about money, then I’ll check my bank balance the next day and possibly transfer money. To know that I’ll remember to do this, I keep a beanie baby in my bathroom. In the night, I go in and straddle the beanie baby across the faucet, and say the thing I need to do out loud. It works pretty well. I can relax because I know i’ll take care of the problem tomorrow. And I always remember what it is when I see the beanie baby. Warning: it won’t work for remembering 2 things; only one.

  • Wow! This is an incredible volcano of smart ideas. Thank you all!

  • When I can’t settle my mind using my usual strategies, mentally holding that baby, kitten, puppy, etc… Or pondering a low tension, high satisfaction project, like my knitting, I do multiplication tables in my head.

  • I listen to (FREE!) audio books via Libravox as a sleep aid. So if I wake up and can’t get back to sleep, I am at least distracted and entertained.

  • For me, writing a few thoughts/to dos down on the little pad of paper by my bed, or saying a prayer helps. Really bad fears get written down and in the morning, I put them in my God box (I.e. turning them over to God, my higher power, etc.) For each feat that goes in the box, I write a few words in my journal as a prayer for what I need. Each fear is usually the negative clarion call for something I need – clarity, love, time to do something, strength, whatever, so I ask God/HP to help me fulfill the need I’ve identified. It works. ❤️

  • Last Monday night this happened to me, big time. A work related problem, which *of course* I couldn’t address that night, was doing the brain train thing. I couldn’t figure out a solution. All of a sudden, I thought… ‘you are *not* alone.’ Not alone with the problem, not alone in the world, not alone in spirit. I have co-workers, a husband, my faith…I have a team! I don’t have to solve stuff by myself. That let me get back to sleep finally. (and my team solved the work problem too).

  • We briefly awaken about every 90 minutes during the night. The 3 am wakeful brain needs something to occupy itself. If we start using that time to think instead of sleep*, the wakeful brain goes, aha, this is my time to think. And fret. And it can become a habit. Giving the 3 am wakeful brain a meaningless task can break the habit. The most useful task I’ve found is: Imagine odd numbers between 10 &100 in random order. 11,87, 53, 25, (whatever)…. If thoughts intervene, put them aside without judgment & go back to counting. It works great.
    *Sleep doctors suggest the bed is only for sleeping & sex, not for thinking.

  • I get up and do a couple Sudoku puzzles. The mental churn that has been keeping me awake then seems to move far enough away that I can fall back to sleep.

  • I ask myself,”are you going to get up and handle this now? If not, let it go. “ Then I pray through my list of friends and family until I fall asleep.

  • Thanks to all for these excellent anti-fret ideas. Love ya!!

  • If it’s a task type thing, I get up and write it/them down in my Bujo. That does the trick right away.

    Anything else, I get up and read or knit on the couch. It’ll take maybe an hour for me to relax before I can go back to bed.

  • This is great!
    My solution is to turn on a knitting podcast(sometimes I use airpods so as not to wake my partner) and listen to ideas about knitting and I’m asleep in less than 5 minutes. Thank you MDK and Max D.

  • If I wake up and can’t go back to sleep for worrying, I get up and do something. Journal, read, knit; if desperate wash a load of dishes (that’s for when truly desperate). I may still have to worry out whatever it was, but at least when I’m finished I will have a few rows knitted, or a few pages journaled. Maybe even a few dishes washed (only on truly desperate occasions). It feels like, “There, obsessive thoughts. I have well and truly spit in your eye.”

    One more note. This may not be the case with everyone, but I have found that if I eat too many refined carbs during the day, I am more likely to wake up with “panic attack” thoughts. When I minimize carbs (not eliminate – just not over-indulge) I usually sleep like a rock. As I said, this may not work for everyone, but my doctor confirmed that there is in fact some biological basis for this.

  • I ALWAYS do the ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen?’ It really does help. Then instead of counting sheep I literally review my knitting projects and what I’m going to make next. Might not be restful but it does infuse me with happy.

  • I focus on listening to a book (Audible). It works for me. Like a child listening to that bedtime story!!!

  • Thank you for this great article, and all the good ideas in the comments!
    I have two strategies for when I can’t go back to sleep.
    1. In my mind, make an alphabetical list of the US states, keeping track of how many I’ve named. I usually fall asleep before I get through all 50 states.
    2. Go through the alphabet, naming words that start with each letter. Sometimes I give myself a category, and I go as fast as I can, without overthinking it.
    Example: AA, aardvark. AB, absolute. AC, actually. AD, advocate. AE, aeroplanes. And so on. I don’t always start with A, and this always works for me.

    • Awesome ideas and so timely to repoint us to this article!

      I imagine a stop sign in my head when I am kept up by a worry. I just keep re-reading that word “STOP” on an octagonal red background and it cancels out other words for me.

      I learned this when I was going through a terribly hard and worrisome time, from someone who had had it worse than I did. I figured if it worked for her, it could work for me, so I tried it and it did!

  • Helpful to read this during this uncertain time. Thanks so much!

My Cart0
There are no products in the cart!
Continue shopping