The Witching Hour

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photo by Dona Laurita

I had a chuckle at myself a couple of months ago. I had been mentioning the 3-4 am witching hour –  the time when many people wake up overtaken by panic or anxiety – in my blog posts, and then I found myself waking up at that hour myself. It had been a long time since I’ve woken up at the witching hour, but in mid-December I woke up twice to find the clock begin with the number three: 3:47 then 3:17.

Instead of fighting it or judging it, I became curious. Instead of trying to will myself back to sleep, I followed the invitation of psyche and divined its wisdom. And then, as I always do to make sense of my experience, I wrote:

It’s 3:17. I don’t fight it. I lie in the darkness for a while and become curious. I gently notice. I breathe. I sense a sadness in my heart. I breathe there. I notice that I’m hungry. I consider walking down to the kitchen for a “midnight” snack, but I’m cold and I don’t want to leave the warmth of blankets.

More time passes. My hunger becomes more insistent.

I feel a shimmer of joy as I walk down the stairs. The house is silent, a rare occurrence in a house with two boys. I stop on the stairs to take in the Christmas lights and the dark trees swaying outside. I move quietly, so as not to wake anyone up. My cat has followed me downstairs, and I smile at her: fellow creature of the night, sweet feminine nighttime wanderer, moon lover, living on natural time where night and day blend into one seamless circle of life. I get a snack, then carry it upstairs to huddle next to the heater vent, where I eat and drink a little.

I feel safe in the darkness, huddled in the holiness of a cold December night. My senses are more acute at this hour; the food tastes “extra delicious”, as my five year old would say, without any other distractions. I sit and eat and chew and swallow – a mini mindfulness practice – and then notice a memory filtering up from body: waking up in the middle of the night in my first trimester of pregnancy with a hunger so ravenous I thought it would empty me from the inside, then eating banana oat muffins with almond milk, my whole body singing in pleasure at this delicious combination of sweet with cold, the texture of muffin meeting the creamy liquid.

I wonder at the date – December 17 – and become curious: Was that the day I found out I was pregnant eleven years ago? I look back through my journal and find it was December 20th. Close. Yes.  The body remembers. I feel another wave of sadness. I smile and I cry. I don’t need to know exactly why. I hold both feelings and trust in the non-linear language of psyche that can tolerate paradox and opposites. It’s all okay. I read through other old journal entries and a sadness so deep rises up in me. I cry. The treasure map of psyche has led me to a pain in my heart that needs attention, a pain that’s not always easy to access in the middle of a busy day.

I have to force myself to get back into bed. The night, the silence, the timelessness – it’s like a nutrient my body craves – and I could stay up for hours enveloped in this world, reading back on old journal entries and traveling down the pathways of memory and feeling. But my alarm bell in the form of a five year old will wake me up bright and early, and I won’t be a patient mother tomorrow if I don’t get more sleep, so I whisper thank you to the darkness, the invisibles, the goddesses of night, the wisdom of psyche, and settle back in to bed.

Many years ago my 3am awakenings did not feel so serene. There was a time when I was awoken by nightmares at 3 or 4am, my whole body shaking and my soul screaming out. When I would resist, the panic would rise to tumultuous levels, my bones shaking like an earthquake. But at other times I was fascinated, for as long as I can remember I’ve been a follower of dreams. At the time I couldn’t decipher the messages, but I knew they were important, so I would faithfully pull myself out of bed and write them down. When the fascination – the compassionate curiosity – took over, I could walk through the anxiety and arrive at some serenity.

Curiosity is the key. Viewing your life as a treasure map and what we call symptoms – anxiety, depression, insomnia, somatic aches and illness – as cues and signals along the journey is what leads you to your own quiet, inarguable wisdom. Wisdom speaks to us all the time. We are, it seems, walking reservoirs of this timeless wisdom and creative wells asking for expression, our anxiety and insomnia and depression speaking in the only language it can.

Who might you meet in the middle of the night next time you’re awakened at 3am? What soul-self longs to lead you down the stairs or into the closet where your memories, dreams, and creativity dwell? There is a story waiting to be told. There is wisdom waiting to be divined. When you approach your life with curiosity, you will be guided into the spiral labyrinth that leads you into your true Self, the place where your self-trust and your own compass live.

The message will differ from person to person and from each stage in your life. Some of my clients talk about the witching hour as a time to connect deeply to spiritual guidance. Others are awakened by the telltale signs of anxiety: heart pounding, chest constricted, mouth dry. Regardless of the tone of the hour, the messages are there, asking or even begging for you listen. The listening begins by shifting to a mindset that asks, “What’s wrong with me?” to one that trusts in your innate goodness and instead asks, “What is the message? What is it that psyche is wanting me to learn?” For the dreams and awakenings at the witching hour don’t come from our conscious mind, and it’s for this reason that they are like flecks of gold transmitted from our own wells of wisdom that live deep inside, beneath the layers of thought and mind. If you want to move forward out of the stuck places and into more light of awareness it would behoove you to turn toward and listen instead of to judge and run.

48 comments to The Witching Hour

  • Romy

    Sheryl, thank you so much for sharing your own personal experiences here. It’s so helpful to see it in action, in black and White. In the grip of anxiety it’s so easy to forget how to go through this experience with all the knowledge and learning that has been built over time.
    And to learn to sit with the fear and pain as it arises, without judging- an area I’m still learning to master!

  • This whole beautiful piece of writing is like a nutrient composed of the night, the silence, the timelessness and the wisdom of psyche. It was nourishing to read 🙂

  • Maureen

    I’ve been reading lately about some historians are positing that people didn’t always consider it normal to sleep all the way through the night but that before the industrial revolution people slept in two chunks and commonly woke for a short period during the middle of the night for various activities before going back to sleep. This was called “first sleep” and “second sleep”.

  • Maureen

    If you want to read more about first and second sleep, search “BBC News” and “The Myth of the Eight-Hour Sleep” or “Slumberwise” and “Your Ancestors Didn’t Sleep Like You.”

    • These studies are fascinating to me. Like so much else, the way we think about sleep is a cultural construction. When we change our expectations, we release massive amounts of pressure which can reduce anxiety.

  • Jessicabythebay

    Sheryl, thank you so much for writing this. It makes me feel SO much better to know that someone that I admire greatly (you) has struggled with the witching hour. For me, it’s 4-5 AM. My brain spins and spins and spins about all kinds of things, sometimes ridiculously small things. It’s utterly baffling to me why this happens. I always struggle with getting up vs. staying in bed. I don’t want to wake my partner (though sometimes he senses I am awake anyway), and I haven’t yet been able to get myself to journal during that time. My default is it say “Oh, sh*t I’m awake and if I don’t get back to sleep i’m going to be exhausted and my brain won’t work right and i have that big meeting this afternoon…” etc…. I’ll try to approach these periods of anxious wakefulness with more curiosity and compassion, as you suggest.

  • Bella

    Thank you so much Sheryl! I woke up with a thumping heart at 5am this morning and couldn’t go back to sleep.I’m having a tough and unpleasant time at my new job, and now I’m not sure anymore that I made a good choice of new employer for me and after only 4 weeks there, I’m playing with the thought of looking for something new.
    Your post came at exactly the right time. I listened to myself and then journaled through the anxiety and now feel positive and better than before.
    Thanks again!

  • Sharan

    So beautifully written… It reminds me of how my relationship anxiety began and i used to resist it every night. And it morphed exactly how you said. One day, instead, i said to myself “hello anxiety…what have you come to tell me now?” And i’ll never forget what happened. Silence… The “symptoms” disappeared, i was calm, and in opposite of panic. It was the first time i began to listen to myself. So powerful that my inner world just stopped…with shock probably. Curiosity goes such a long way, it’s such an important part of life, especially when you’re in pain. It makes me feel sad to remember that time but i embrace that feeling and grieve. Thank you. X

    • What a powerful, powerful experience, Sharan. I love the way you phrased it: “Hello anxiety, what have you come to tell me now?” Anxiety is truly the messenger. When we stop to listen to the messages instead of fighting and resisting the symptoms diminish and we can receive the communication at the core.

  • Angela

    Hi Sheryl, thank you for sharing those unforgettable memories. A lot people say that in order to question and be curious about what ur feelings of fear, which come with all the lovely symptoms.Is only then that we stop and give ourselves the attention it’s seeking. There were times when I didn’t even care how I was feeling or thinking. I just wanted to move forward. Live my life and ignore my feelings. Get up go to work, that’s all I knew. Just do the daily routine not winge and moan. I was happy NOT. From doing your inspirational work I see myself more compassionately. I matter first.
    I hope you were spoilt on Valentines Day with much love you so deserveX

  • Angela

    Sheryl, I want to also ask you.. I still feel like I can’t breathe freely like I did when I was single. The way I can explain this to you is like I feel the river isn’t running smoothly. My internal system is blocked from a bit of anxiety.. Is the anxiety still lingering inside of me? Do I need to still do more work on myself?

  • Ali

    Hi Sheryl,

    Thank you for this post. Your words are always so rich in meaning and relevancy for me. Being single, I am really trying to work on loving myself lately. I have been paying attention to the lyrics in songs I’ve been listening to. While many of these songs have ‘love’ as the theme, I’ve been thinking of the lyrics as being directed towards the self instead of a ‘lover.’ I’ve also realized how obsessed our culture is with the happiness and sadness we find in our relationship with the ‘other.’

    Best Wishes and thanks again.

  • Shelley

    Sheryl. Finally an answer, though subconsciously I knew it. I have always waken during the witching hour, since I was a small child. Whenever I was upset, sad, anxious, I would awaken close to 3am. Sometimes I would get up, but usually stay in bed, thinking about whatever was left in my mind from the day.
    I have always called it the witching hour, for myself. I did not realize this was an actual phenomenon. My labours for both of my children started at 3am. I have always had a strong connection to this time, and find peace in the quiet of the house, when I do give up fighting, acknowledge that I have something to think about. It is a time when I feel I have myself completely to myself. My partner cannot intrude, or demand my attention.
    I know what is waking me now. I know what needs to be done, but it is the how, that is demanding my attention at 3am.
    Today, as I woke, I listened to his soft snoring. I am on my way at 4am, with him to visit volcanoes, on a dream vacation. When he sleeps, I feel the closeness we once had, what we were together. What we have lost. This is my witching hour.
    Strange that today, I have told myself I must deal with this, so I rose earlier than planned, to think. I did something I never allow myself to do. I picked up my phone, and there was your message, about the witching hour. What I go through every night. The messages are getting clearer.

    • Wow, Shelley, that’s extraordinary. It’s time to listen to these clear messages and to the work that needs to be done.

      My labors also began between 3 and 4am. It’s also the most common time when people depart in death. The veil between the worlds is thin.

      By the way, I don’t know why I’ve named it the witching hour. I’ve never seen it written about, but I find it fascinating that you have always called it the witching hour as well. Another synchronicity.

  • Rachael

    It’s interesting to me that “the witching hour” is also used to describe when babies/children are fussy in the evening hours before bed. I wonder if that is the time when their souls are reaching out to us as their caregivers.

  • onedayatatime

    Hi Sheryl, what I received today in my inbox really spoke to me. Late at night/early in the morning is also the time the deep sadness I have always felt for this world, wells up and becomes very strong.

    Just last week, when I was feeling the sadness for the loss of my grandma, I wrote to her and then I asked her to help me live a full and grateful life. It seemed to help the sadness that felt like it could go on forever. I am slowly learning the concept of moving towards pain and fear, to heal. That it is the way that will lead to healing and to cope with these strong feelings and realities.

    But I’ve also realized that it seems I just have so much sadness, not just for people or things I’ve lost, but others and the loss and suffering that is present in this world. But I haven’t been sure what to make of all this sadness. Do I have too much and is there something wrong? Am I just projecting my sadness onto the world and therefore need more healing? Should I get rid of this sadness? Can I even get rid of this sadness? The passage about a broken heart spoke to me and I was like “Yes! It feels like I constantly have a broken heart”. And not even in a depressive “get me out of this state” way, but just that I know sadness exists everywhere and I can’t ignore it. Sometimes it seems like my heart breaks daily and the sadness can be really strong. But, I wonder if this is unhealthy?

  • Kitty

    Hi sheryl,
    I really love this post. I often blush for no clear reason and people ask ‘what’s wrong? Why’s your face all red’. I have developed fear now of blushing and often avoid certain situations that I feel a bit panicky in and am likely to blush. I also sometimes wake up at 4am with tears or heartache. painfully beautiful but the blushing is not so beutiful just difficult. Deep down I know there is a hidden message here, sometimes I have the courage to embrace it and often I shy away and want to hide. Pain or anxious feelings can be so hard to face when they are so very present but I love your posts and support. It’s very beautiful to hear someone be open and honest about difficult feelings . Thank you

  • Jer

    This is really interesting, thanks Sheryl

  • Sam

    Thank you Sheryl for this wonderful article. I’ve take a couple of your courses so I’m in the process of really learning to listen to myself and stop fighting the awful symptoms of anxiety/fear. Just as others have posted, this time between the night and the early morning has awoken me on numerous occasions. I don’t think that I had noticed it when I awoke at that time when I was without anxiety. However, it is when I am in fear and locked into anxiety that such a waking hour affects me so deeply. Typically it had felt like that wake up washed me with all of the symptoms of anxiety and the dread of the new day of struggle and it just dragged me deeper into sadness and vulnerability. Lately though, (with the help of your work), I’ve been changing my perspective on this and seeing it as a signal of change in myself, an awareness and a chance to break through old, painful thought patterns and beliefs. I don’t know if I’m doing it correctly or if there is a right/wrong.

  • Lucy

    This experience has occurred at two different times in my life. After a really awful breakup in 2007, for several weeks after it happened I would wake up almost exactly at 3 am and not be able to fall back asleep. I knew it was grief, but I don’t think I knew how to deal with it or listen to it at the time – I was more concerned with getting back to sleep because I had to go to work in a few hours.
    The second experience with this was almost 2 years ago. It signaled the beginning of a depression that resulted in me being hospitalized. It was very scary as I had no idea what was happening to me. It’s still very painful to think about, as that depression in turn signaled the final months of my relationship with my fiancé. I think now that deep down I knew I was not in a good place in my relationship and that he was not the right person for me (far beyond normal relationship anxiety), and that the waking and the depression was my body calling out for me to recognize what my mind was unwilling to see at the time. I had been trying to tell myself for over a year that my extreme anxiety and panicked feelings that came up when I was proposed to was the normal relationship anxiety that a lot of women go through. But I think now it was not, as there were zero happy feelings to go along with the anxiety at that time. I felt trapped, made worse by the fact that we were on a cruise in Alaska and I was in a way trapped on that ship, thousands of miles from home and anything familiar. My body and mind were screaming that I did not want to marry this person, but I shoved the feelings away, telling myself I wouldn’t have been dreaming of him proposing to me for so long if I didn’t really want to marry him, and that the “bad” feelings would subside. I managed to push them away for awhile, but I think I ended up depressed and borderline suicidal a little over year later because I’d been denying my true feelings. Ten months after I was released from the hospital, I called off my engagement. It had come to light in that time that he was a constant liar, was having an emotional affair with one of my former friends (a relationship that developed while I was in the hospital), and was the same type of passive-aggressive abandoner that I’d chosen in every other romantic relationship in my life.
    It’s been just over a year since then and I’m still grieving the loss of that relationship and the loss of the dream of being married and having a family. I’m still trying to figure out how to heal the wounded place inside of me that keeps attracting this type of man. I eventually would like to find a new relationship, and hopefully get married and have children, but I’m also terrified to open my heart to someone else again. I’m not sure I could handle yet another heartbreak like the ones I’ve suffered in the past.
    I’ve gotten way off topic, but I hope that if I ever have awakenings in the witching hour again, I will be better prepared to feel the message and listen.

  • Johnny

    Awesome Sheryl! Thanks so much for your work

  • Kim

    Im a waker of the early morning, too. 🙂 Though it wasn’t always this way, I can now appreciate the beauty of this pure time, sometimes even connecting to my heart and guidance. My hurt, protective parts are left to rest til sunrise. I think it’s when I haven’t been tending to my grief, or other emotions but for me mainly grief, that I wake up at around 4-4:30. My grief is shy and only comes out when it feels safe.

    It’s interesting that in traditional Chinese medicine there is a cycle of renewal, 3-5 am coresponds to the Lung organ, and the Lung’s emotion is grief. The Lung is also a yin organ, which is feminine and nourishing. I remember from my brief studies that the lungs are responsible for inspiration–breathing in spirit/Qi.

    Maybe others here know more about this.

    It all feels so harmonious. Thanks Sheryl and everyone who shares here.

  • klewis23

    Hi Sheryl,
    I have been reading your articles for about one year, and I participated in Trust Yourself which was wonderful! I wanted to participate in Open Your Heart, but when it was offered, I had been almost completely anxiety free (regarding my relationship) for about 4 months. Now I wish I would have participated! Two weekends ago, my boyfriend lost his grandfather. The week prior to this, I had been feeling ambivalent toward him which I didn’t pay much attention to. However, after his grandfather’s passing, he took his grief out on me and did say some hurtful things about our relationship (which was very unlike him). We’ve made amends, and I totally understand that he was going though a lot at that point, but I have had the worst anxiety every day since the argument. Sometimes it feels more like sadness, and even when I read through your articles and talk with people about it, the anxiety and sadness returns. I always come back to this feeling that there is no way we will work out because we aren’t “meant” for each other – like God (or some cosmic force) will not allow us to be together in the end. I feel like all this progress I made has been for nothing and like maybe I was just fooling myself into believing I was happy.
    Do you have any articles that tie in religion and anxiety/ relationship anxiety, and/or anxiety returning?
    Thanks so much for any guidance you can give! I really love your work. You really are a blessing.

  • Che

    Wonderful as always. I woke up this morning having had nightmares and dark feelings. At first I tired to think positively and picture nice things and just go back to sleep, but that wasn’t working. Then I said what am I feelingg – instead of what am I thinking – and there it was – a fear feeling. Fear. sadness. Once I pushed into those feelings they actually begin to subside and give way eventually to more positive feelings.

  • Feeling hopeless

    Sheryl, do you think it is possible to work your way out of an on again off again relationship.. Fear came into play a lot with some of the breakups and it’s been like that for two years and we want to stop the cycle and create a healthy relationship but things do feel hopeless especially with a lot of sites saying it isn’t possible

    • Feeling hopeless

      Additionally can you work on something if the both of you have some sort of relationship anxiety and both of you don’t know what to do.

  • Emma

    Sheryl thank you for your beautifully written work. I find it always helps me when I need it most!
    I have a quick question if you could possibly respond.
    My anxiety regarding my relationship seemed to begin when i was informed my uncle had a year to live.
    It went away for a little while and recently a close friend was murdered.
    Could my relationship anxiety have manifested due to a fear of loss and the recent bereavement?

  • Lea

    Sheryl, I was wondering…Lately I’ve been feeling angry at my fiance, so angry that I’m just looking for reasons to argue with him. I’ve even insulted him several times in the past few weeks and I’m not sure how much more he can take.I think that this comes from my inability to control my fear, I feel so out of control, I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not.He says that it’s time to set the date since it’s been three months since he proposed and he feels that it’s time to move on. I understand him because he also fears that deep down inside I don’t want to marry him. He doesn’t deserve this, I feel so guilty. We argue all the time it’s like I’ve put a wall between us so that he can’t come any near me. There are times when I feel the love and hope feelings but it doesn’t take much to set me off again. So my question is whether anger is part of the transition and what does it manifest?

  • Melissa

    Hi Sheryl,

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart for all that you do. Without you and your blog I would have left my boyfriend by now or did something I’d surely regret.
    I love your writing and your work. You are helping so many!
    But I have a question, which is always on my mind with regards to my relationship anxiety. And even though reading through your blog sure does help, but this question is still nagging at me, continuously.

    How do you know that this is ROCD (Relationship anxiety) or plainly falling out of love? Many people leave their partners, stating that they have fallen out of love, etc etc…

    I find myself doubting whether it is anxiety or falling out of love and when the intrusive thoughts- such as ‘why do I feel anxious when I think of my bf?’ ‘I don’t love him’ ‘He deserves someone better than me’ I feel so horrible, so I try and block them out and think of something else. Sometimes I also try to remember the good memories I have with him, so that I feel something- happiness, contentment, something! And sometimes I also try to visualize us in the future- Next summer together- to feel some excitement or anything… Sometimes that helps, sometimes it makes me feel worse.

    I find myself that during the nights before bed, I feel more at peace.
    I also need to let you know that I am taking Cipralex for my depression and Xanax for the anxiety. As just last week, I was very suicidal.

    It would be truly appreciated if you can answer me that question for me Sheryl 🙂

    Thank you once again!

    XXXXXXXX

  • Marybeth

    Such a nice post Sheryl-
    ‘…a pain in my heart that needs attention, a pain that is not always easy to access in the middle of a busy day…’
    Wise words…
    And pain could be substituted for anything–sadness, joy, etc.
    I so struggle w/ the lack of reflective space as a Mom!!
    Wouldn’t trade it for the world, but this is the eternal challenge!
    Patients will often ask me about insomnia and I often discuss this very aspect of ‘are you able to find space to reflect on things?’
    I am a firm believer that the subconscious comes bubbling up when we are at rest b/c it has been so ignored all day…
    We all run so fast… it is as if the subconscious is screaming ‘please, attend to this!! And I don’t care if your clock says 4am!!’
    But what a blessing–the peace of the night is a great time to embrace it.
    And your muffin and milk comments–I have a favorite pumpkin chocolate chip muffin recipe that I have many memories of eating while pregnant up in the night w/ a glass of milk!! Eating and reflecting:)

    Hope you are well!
    Miss you–we need to connect soon:)

  • Tam

    Dear Sheryl, it fascinates how when i am going through some anxious thoughts, its enough for me to read a few of your posts and i am centered again. This one was especially important as for a few days i have been feeling unusual feelings on somewhat relationship anxiety with a man who truly is everything i have dreamed of. And after reading your post i started wondering if this time of year had any significance to me and then i remembered that last year during March i ended a 7 year relationship for the second and final time. Even though i am 100% sure of my decision i should remember that it is normal to grieve and that the body remembers. Thanks again:)