‘I’m a Sleep Expert, and This Is the No. 1 Mistake People Make When Trying To Get Better Sleep’

Photo: Getty Images / Onsuda Usanakornkul / EyeEm
We've all had nights when we can't sleep. Even after a long day, you get in bed just to lie awake for several hours. But Rebecca Robbins, PhD, associate scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, says that staying in bed when you can't sleep is the worst thing you can do for your sleep cycle.

"One of the biggest mistakes that many of us make, myself included, is when we're experiencing sleep difficulty, staying in bed and tossing and turning and thinking that if we just stay in bed a little bit longer, we'll will ourselves to sleep," says Dr. Robbins. But we're actually doing the opposite. "We're classically conditioning our brains to understand that in bed is where insomnia happens. It's not a place where we drift off to sleep, but instead where we toss and turn."

Experts In This Article

Most people don't fall asleep the second their head hits the pillow, so don't jump up if you can't immediately fall asleep. You'll know when it starts to feel like a lost cause.

"The well-rested person will take around 15 minutes to fall asleep. So even if you had a very healthy sleep system, it actually takes a little bit of time to fall asleep," says Dr. Robbins. "But if you have a problematic sleep latency, right around the time when you find that voice chime in [that says] 'Oh, not again, not again. I can't fall asleep, not again tonight,' that is exactly when you need to get out of bed and start the process over."

And yes, this can be difficult especially if you just really want to cozy up and drift off; Dr. Robbins says it's worth it.

"When I was little, I remember my mother saying, 'You must stay in bed. It's very important. Stay in bed. You'll get some sleep. It's better than none,'" says Dr. Robbins. "But it's much better to reset the brain, and get out of bed. Try to do something mindless. Fold your laundry, put away your dishes, or read a couple of pages of a boring book. And then when you're tired, come back and start the process again." Robbins notes that it's best to avoid screens (like phones and computers) and strong lights, as they greatly affect your sleep.

Sometimes, the inability to fall asleep at night is tied to daytime behaviors. One of the big culprits is caffeine. "If you're in bed and you're not able to fall asleep because your heart is racing, blood pumping, that could be because you had too much caffeine," she says. In that case, she says to avoid caffeine in the afternoon and limit your morning coffee to one or two cups. Another reason can be eating dinner too close to bedtime. "The digestion process takes up some energy and some time and that can keep you from falling asleep." She also recommends refraining from high-intensity workouts right before bed.

But sometimes, behavior has nothing to do with it. Some nights, you will have a hard time falling asleep, and that's okay.

"[Sleep difficulties] happen to all of us, and now more than ever, because we're living in the midst of a pandemic. Our lives have been changed completely and sleep is a function of what happens during our days," says Dr. Robbins. "Notice that that is completely normal, and take that in stride. Realize that the next day is going to get a little bit rough. You're going to be tired, but do your best." And remember that sleep should come much easier the following evening.

More Tips for Sleep Difficulties

1. Carve out time in the evening to worry

If worrying in bed is what’s keeping you wired, create time and space to worry while not in bed—so that your brain begins to associate worrying with a separate activity that occurs before sleep. “This just means taking a few moments before bedtime to write down any worries that are on your mind, whether they are small or large,” says Dr. Robbins. You can also write down the tasks or projects that are stressing you out (as a to-do list for the next day), so that they’re less likely to haunt you that night.

Not only does this practice help distance the act of worrying from something you do as you’re trying to sleep, but also, it creates cognitive space between you and your own worries. “The practice of writing them down on paper—instead of allowing them to stay in your mind—can significantly improve your ability to relax and ease off to sleep,” says Dr. Robbins.

2. Use paradoxical intention

If you could somehow forget about your strong desire to fall asleep, wouldn’t sleep come to you more easily? That’s the reality upon which paradoxical intention is based. This cognitive behavioral therapy technique just asks you to get into bed, leave your eyes open, and focus on staying awake, instead of falling asleep, says Dr. Robbins, which can be helpful if you’ve developed any kind of performance anxiety around sleeping.

As you face your fear directly—that is, not sleeping—the pressure to sleep begins to slowly lessen over time, says clinical psychologist and sleep specialist Shelby Harris, PsyD, author of The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. Without that pressure to sleep, it's ironically all the more likely that sleep will happen naturally.

To be clear, the goal with paradoxical intention isn’t to do activities or move around your house in an effort to actually stay awake, says Dr. Harris. So, this mental trick isn’t great for anyone who’s super concrete in their thinking, she says. “It’s just about staying in bed and saying to yourself, ‘I’m going to stay awake,’ without doing anything else or looking at any screens.” The more you try to do this one thing, the more likely it is for the opposite to eventually happen by default.

3. Practice the "cognitive shuffle"

The kind of racing thoughts that tend to crop up pre-sleep can put your brain in an alert, analytical state not conducive to sleep. To shift out of that state, though, you may need a real distraction—one that’s strong enough to draw your attention away from anxious thoughts, but not so stimulating that it keeps you awake just the same. Enter: cognitive shuffling, an imagination technique created by Luc Beaudoin, PhD, an adjunct professor of cognitive science at Simon Fraser University, as part of his development of the mySleepButton app.

To do it, you simply think up any random object with at least five letters, like “evergreen.” From there, you’d spell it out in your head, and for each letter of the word, think of as many words as you can that start with that letter. In this case, that would mean starting with "e" and thinking up words like “eggs,” “echo,” “entryway,” and so on.

While you’re doing this, picture a visual of each item. And whenever you can't think of any more items for a given letter, move onto the next letter, and repeat the process. (If you manage to get through the entire word without drifting off, pick another word, and keep it going.) “The visualization and neutral aspect of this technique can help turn off the analytic, verbal narrative part of the brain that often keeps us up,” says Dr. Harris. And it doesn’t hurt that the imagery involved is also far more interesting than a bunch of sheep.

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