We've all been there: You're exhausted and ready for bed... until you're actually ready for bed, and then you spend the next three hours staring at the ceiling. On nights like these, it's understandable to wonder: why do we struggle with actually falling asleep? Has someone put a literal curse on our sleeping abilities which causes us to wake up as soon as we actually try to go to bed? Why are those dang sheep so elusive even when you've counted them up, down, left, and right?
In a recent article for TIME Health, Abigail Abrams posed this very question to sleep expert Philip Gehrman. Turns out, this infuriating situation is called conditioned or learned arousal — routines we've unconsciously established that send a "WAKE UP" signal to our brain instead of the desired, "Please, please, I beg of you, go to sleep" one. Learned arousal is a symptom of psychophysiological insomnia, the most common sleep disorder subtype, and once it takes hold, it often self-perpetuates.
Though it affects 12 to 15 percent of the population, psychophysiological insomnia (PI) is often attributed to popular misconceptions about proper sleep habits. If you aim to get seven hours of sleep, for example, you should try to be in bed eight hours before you need to wake up — right? Nope! Don't do that! If you struggle with falling asleep right away (and honestly, who doesn't?), then your body will associate tossing and turning, as well as the anxiety that accompanies the tossing and turning, with your bed.
That's why there's that phenomenon of, "I was so tired a minute ago and now as soon as I get under the covers sleep evades me, alas, alack." You've accidentally taught yourself that bed equals heightened anxiety.
So, how do you combat this obnoxious phenomenon? Sleep psychologist Michael Perlis suggests restricting your time in bed. This means two things: Only spending time in bed when you're exhausted and committed to sleeping right away, and eliminating that time cushion. No lounging in bed during the day. Don't allow yourself the crutch of an extra hour to compensate for tossing and turning. If you need to be up in seven hours, get in bed seven hours before the alarm. Yes, initially, this will mean that you'll lose some zzz's, but that fatigue will build up, and hopefully, you'll be on your way to a stress-free sleep cycle.
Other tips? No naps. No exercise, caffeine, or alcohol several hours before bed. Oh, and cognitive therapy. Address the underlying issues surrounding your sleep anxiety, because there's a good chance there are several. Commit yourself to a few weeks of tough love, and reap the rewards of being well-rested. Sweet dreams!