Do not try to try to get to sleep — it does not work
Mary B. Barmann, MFT
Jan arrives home from work, puts down the groceries and glances toward her bedroom. Jan sees her bed, unmade from the night before, because she was too tired to make it earlier in the day due to having yet another sleepless night.
As she prepares dinner, Jan begins her “what if” thinking (worrying) process. “What if I can’t get to sleep again tonight?” Her strategy for solving this problem always consists of the following:
Watch an interesting movie two hours before bedtime.
Drink a cup of hot tea.
Stay up later than her usual bedtime, in order to become more tired.
Take a warm bath just before bed.
Once in bed, ask herself, “What if I wake up tonight at 2 a.m., like I always do?”
If still awake at 2 a.m., lie down on the living room sofa and watch more TV.
Jan has been using these intuitive strategies for years; they’re not working, so she tries harder … still not working. She’s dealing with her INTERNAL world (worrying about sleep) just as she interacts with her EXTERNAL world (jobs, relationships, etc.).
Her manner of thinking is, “when you want something you’re not getting, work harder at obtaining it” (e.g., getting a good night’s sleep).
A COUNTERINTUITIVE PROBLEM
Worrying is a counterintuitive problem, a situation in which your default reaction is to behave in ways designed to end worrisome thoughts.
Unfortunately, this strategy results in making the problem even worse. The reason this happens is because when a person attempts to solve a counterintuitive problem with an intuitive solution, resistance occurs.
Remember, “what you resist (fight against), persists.” Sleeping is one of our only daily activities which, theoretically, requires no effort. We should ALLOW it to happen, not MAKE it happen.
TRYING to fall asleep is like attempting to not think a particular thought; it will backfire. It’s kind of like TRYING to enjoy your favorite meal. Makes no sense. Striving to enjoy something (a good sleep or meal) won’t work. Allowing it to happen, will work.
IGNORE THE CONTENT
Worrying about getting to sleep is different than the act of sleeping. The former requires effort, the latter doesn’t. Deal with your worries about sleep the same way you would respond to any worry.
Don’t get fooled by taking the content (staying awake all night) seriously. It’s not the content that triggers worry; it’s the uncertainty surrounding the content that’s the primary issue.
For example, consider Jan’s sleep difficulties.
Several hours before she goes to bed, she begins the “what if” game. “What if I wake up at 2 a.m. again, making it the sixth night straight this occurs?”
Jan, like many others, is caught in the uncertainty cycle of anticipatory worry concerning early awakening, followed by early awakening, followed by additional worry once awake, and so on. Worrying about the uncertainty of a 2 a.m. awakening leads to the outcome she fears.
A COUNTERINTUITIVE SOLUTION
Remember what we stated earlier; a counterintuitive problem requires a counterintuitive solution. Individuals who evidence chronic sleep difficulties are not going to like, nor necessarily understand, the following advice. But please, give it a try. Don’t take this problem lying down!
Before you go to bed tonight, set your alarm for 2 a.m. That’s right, 2 a.m. Why? Because it’s the avalanche of doubt and uncertainty about waking up in the middle of the night that fuels the worry that builds up and creates the response of awakening at, or close to, this time period, thus setting the stage for habitually waking up this early.
Setting the alarm for 2 a.m., eliminates all uncertainty concerning this outcome. You WILL be awake at two in the morning! This counterintuitive approach has now created a paradox.
Instead of being uncertain as to whether or not you will wake up at 2 a.m., now you know for certain you will, allowing you the freedom to decide how you will choose to respond.
You have two choices: (1) respond in the same manner as in the past (which has never worked), or (2) wonder why the alarm has sounded, remember why you set it, turn it off, and then go back to sleep.
In fact, don’t be surprised if you find yourself waking up a few minutes before the alarm sounds, turning it off, and then going back to sleep. Think of this approach as your “snooze alarm” strategy. GOOD night!
Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. Visit anxietytreatmentinclinev illage.com to learn more.