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In the Still of the Night : Why does the dark make people so edgy? Quiet is one reason. So is fatigue.


A 4-year-old to her mother: "Mom, do you believe in God?"

"I'm not sure if I do."

"Well, does Daddy believe in God?"

"No, Daddy does not believe in God."

"Not even at night?"


Even at the tender age of 4, we all know there is something very different about the night. It has something to do with the settling darkness. But there is more to it.

For many people, problems--both physical and emotional--seem worse at night. From the parent who overreacts to a child's 101-degree temperature to an adult who panics at 2 a.m. about a

business report due next month, the night can seize reality and warp it.

"There are a lot of psychological reasons why things seem worse at night," says Dr. Barbara Korsch, a pediatrician at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles, who supplied the story of the 4-year-old. "At 2 a.m., everything seems so intolerable. We're isolated with our thoughts. It's the solitude, the loss of other stimuli. Structured, everyday activities are a great support to people."

Mental-health experts and sleep researchers say there are several explanations why problems become exaggerated at night.

For one thing, the night and its problems may loom large simply because of the stillness. During the day, we don't notice how a ringing telephone or a child's needs divert us from pain, anxieties and problems.

At night we are free to drift into "worry cycles," says Eric Klinger, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota, Morris Campus, and the author of a book on daydreaming.

"Throughout a 24-hour cycle, peoples' thoughts get pushed around by emotional cues. Your mind jumps around depending on whatever reminds you of something. Your mind wanders off pretty fast," he says.

At night, without distractions, he says, "You're more likely to get into a circular thought pattern, where you keep staying on that subject. It becomes a vicious circle and your emotions become more intense."

Moreover, physical fatigue translates to a weakened defense against an invasion of relentless thoughts.

"Night is when people start to sag," Klinger says. "When your arousal system is low, you are more at the mercy of spontaneous thoughts. They may be less inhibited and you have less control over what goes on mentally."

The lack of distractions is why chronic pain sufferers dread the night, says Tom Norris, 45, of Los Angeles. Norris has chronic back and leg pain resulting from radiation treatments for cancer years ago.

"It's like as the noise of the day calms down, the pain doesn't," says Norris, who leads a Santa Monica support group for the American Chronic Pain Assn. "Your mind stops dealing with other things in life and the pain creeps out of the corner of your mind and becomes Frankenstein."


In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o'clock in the morning.

--F. Scott Fitzgerald, "The Crack-up"


Alone at night with a problem, it's sometimes difficult to know what to do. Call Mom? Call the doctor? Go to the emergency room? Go back to sleep? Pace? Pray?

"It's difficult if there isn't extended family around," says Korsch, the pediatrician, who notes that parents of sick children are particularly vulnerable at night.

"If you are an inexperienced parent or a single parent, you are already alone. There is much less social support. Who is going to call someone at 2 a.m.?"

Few people pick up the phone first. Children wake up sick and often panic at their symptoms, triggering the same reaction in their groggy parents. As a result, there are many unnecessary emergency room visits, Korsch says.

Amparo Rodriguez of Santa Ana has made many midnight trips to the emergency room with her 7-year-old son, Ruben Vasquez, who has severe asthma.

"I used to be a real heavy sleeper, but since Ruben was diagnosed with asthma, it's one cough and I'm awake," Rodriguez says.

She tries to remain calm because she knows Ruben won't be.

"Having an asthma attack at night is really frightening for him. He'll wake up coughing, and he can't catch his breath. He's already scared of the dark. So he just panics more at night."

After-hours medical clinics that cater to such events as asthma attacks and earaches have been one of the kindest inventions of the night, but this trend has seen its heyday, Korsch says. Health-care reform measures frown on the inefficiency and high costs of operating late-night clinics.

"It's going to become even harder to get access to health care when it's out-of-hours," Korsch predicts.

Even now, there is a witching hour in doctors' offices: 5 p.m. on Fridays.

"People suddenly take their problems much more seriously because they get anxious about the night. They know they won't be able to get the doctor at night or on the weekend," Korsch says.

Bodies don't break down during daylight only. In fact, fevers tend to rise at night. Croup, a respiratory infection common in young children, flares up at night and can restrict breathing. People die more often during the early morning hours than at any other time.

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