Every night you try to fall asleep, you harm your sleep

A lot of insomnia sufferers I talk to have one thing in common —  no matter how hard they try to fall asleep and stay asleep, they just can’t do it. 

And that’s the problem.

Sleep is a natural process. As soon as we try to force sleep, we immediately make it more difficult to sleep.

This has been confirmed in studies, too.

One of them, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, involved 33 good sleepers with an average age of 24. Participants visited a sleep lab twice, and started off in one of two groups.

The neutral instruction group were told:

You should just lie down as if you decided to have some rest during the day. Whether or not you fall asleep doesn’t matter. Just relax.

The motivation instruction group were told:

It’s very important for you to make yourself fall asleep as quickly as possible. Use all the methods you know. If you can fall asleep really quickly, you will get an additional monetary reward.

The rewards were staggered as follows:

  • 300 rubles for falling asleep within 5 minutes
  • 200 rubles for falling asleep within 10 minutes
  • 100 rubles for falling asleep within 15 minutes

Those in the neutral instruction group for their first visit were placed in the motivation instruction group for their second visit. Those in the motivation instruction group for their first visit were placed in the neutral instruction group for their second visit.

The study found that  when participants were in the motivation instruction group , they experienced:

  • Less time asleep
  • More fragmented sleep
  • Higher levels of arousal
  • More awakenings after sleep onset

In other words, as soon as participants actively tried to fall asleep, their sleep quality got worse.Why?

When we actively try to sleep, we don’t allow the body to relax. We keep it alert, constantly checking to see if we are asleep.

Furthermore, as we becoming increasingly anxious about not falling asleep, the body’s stress response kicks in and acts as an additional hindrance to sleep. Environmental distractions can also become more pronounced; we may end up focusing intently on that barking dog or dripping faucet, making sleep virtually impossible.

Interestingly, this study found that instruction type did not affect how long it took participants to actually fall asleep. This may be down to the fact that when participants were asked about strategies they used to try to fall asleep, they reported:

  • Prayer
  • Relaxation
  • Visualization
  • Attempts to stop thinking

Perhaps the fact that these techniques tend to involve relaxation rather than attempts to force sleep explains the unusual result for this sleep measure.How to fall asleep and stay asleep

The best thing you can do to improve your sleep is  stop worrying about sleep . Don’t try to force sleep. Don’t try to set yourself goals when it comes to how long it takes to fall asleep or how much sleep you should be getting.

Instead, try techniques such as paradoxical intention therapy, address dysfunctional sleep thoughts, and consider trying relaxation and meditation techniques.

Finally, recall that the advice given to those who got the best sleep was:

You should just lie down as if you decided to have some rest during the day. Whether or not you fall asleep doesn’t matter. Just relax.

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