5 Psychological Tricks For When You Can't Sleep

Ever struggled to get to sleep? It sucks. You lie awake, toss, turn, put yourself into 14 different positions and finally abandon all thought of getting enough rest before your alarm clock goes off. While there can be a lot of contributing factors to sleepless nights, from too much electronic light at night to sleeping in a room that's too warm, exactly what to do when you can't sleep is a bit less well-known. Stare at the wall? Count the famous sheep? Pray?

You could, of course, always convince somebody to read you the massive hit The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep, a picture book based on cognitive psychology that uses the reader's yawns and word associations to convince children to slumber. Without that, unfortunately, you're going to have to do this on your own — but it'll be easier than you think. It turns out that psychology actually has some tips and tricks to help the sleepless drift off to the Land of Nod, some of which turn our previous understanding of relaxation on its head. 

So next time you're stuck in a sleepless holding pattern, pick out some of these scientifically validated techniques to push you off into dreamland. 

1. Focus On Relaxing Images, Not Counting Sheep

A 2010 study from the University of Oxford found something interesting: counting sheep does nothing whatsoever for our sleep patterns. Nothing. Zero. Squat. (I know, I feel lied to as well.) But the scientists decided to test another option alongside their sheep-counting, and found it was much more effective. The solution? Relaxing images of serene places, like beaches or mountains. 

It turns out that counting sheep in the normal sequential manner doesn't do anything to calm the brain or "trick" it into sleepiness, despite the urban myth of its efficiency. By contrast, people imagining relaxing scenes fell asleep an average of 20 minutes earlier than they would have otherwise. That seems like a fairly good recommendation to me. So the next time you can't sleep, envision your favorite vista, and try to focus on all its glorious imaginary details until you relax. 

2. If You Must Count, Do It Backwards

This is an interesting proposition that's being put forward by certain sleep experts: if you do want to involve numbers in your sleep progression, you'll get more relaxation from counting backwards, and using patterns instead of direct sequencing. Count backwards from 1000 in groups of three, for instance, or in prime numbers if you're so mathematically inclined. 

Mind games, in this scenario, are distractions: they're directing the brain to focus on a not-too-challenging, but still absorbing, sequence rather than fussing and running in circles. Visualizing the numbers as you count them, perhaps being written down or forming a pattern, will likely help too. Counting sheep is too easy for your brain. Give it a little more exercise to make it snooze. 

3. Practice The 4-7-8 Breathing Technique

There are variations on this particular idea, with different lengths of time involved, but the basic principle remains the same. Basically, it's regulated, exceptionally slow breathing modulated along a single framework. Dr. Andrew Weil's version is one of the most famous: breathe in for four seconds, hold for seven, breathe out for eight, and repeat.  

Another version involves breathing in for three seconds and breathing out for six, so this is a matter of finding the particular formulation that works for you and your comfortable breathing patterns. It slows your breathing and makes you mindful of your breath, instead of worrying about taxes or the figure on the alarm clock. Win-win.  

4. Use Guided Imagery

Guided imagery is a specific sleep-inducing technique that resembles guided meditation. It involves getting very comfortable, breathing slowly, and focusing on a situation, object, place, or memory that you find makes you feel calm. The Sleep Foundation points out that this needs to be extremely individual to work properly; you can't just pick a generic screensaver. To have genuine emotional and relaxing impact, you need to visualize your childhood bedroom, the smell of your grandma's house, or something that gives you relaxing thoughts. (Not just pleasure: relaxation. Just thinking happy thoughts will keep you smiling, but likely won't make you drift off.)

5. Practice Thought-Stopping

One of the major causes of sleep cycle disturbance seems to be anxiety, according to the Anxiety And Depression Association Of America. You're all ready to get settled and suddenly you're running over every possible thing that could go wrong with your date tomorrow, or the presentation next week, or why you said that stupid thing on Facebook three months ago. On top of that, sleep anxiety about your insomnia often compounds the problem. 

In cases like this, focusing on relaxing images may not be helpful, but there's another technique that may come in handy: thought-stopping. It's a technique that comes from the University of South Carolina, which directs anxious sleepers to consciously summon the thoughts and worries that are harrying them out of sleep, and then think, in capital letters, STOP! If you find yourself thinking about the worries again, give yourself the same command, and shut it down. 

Images: Unsplash, Giphy

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