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Judith Davidson
Judith Davidson

Want to sleep better? Stop trying so hard Add to ...

Health Advisor is a regular column where contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging. Follow us @Globe_Health.

People in North America seem preoccupied with health and wellness. Every day we read and hear about what to eat, how to exercise and how to get a good night’s sleep. Newspaper stories, TV news panels and magazine articles are devoted to health information – and I’ve lost count of the advice pieces about sleep.

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On a recent trip to Italy, I was struck by a contrast: There seemed to be less fixation on health “how-tos” and greater reflection on aesthetics and quality of living there. It was not about doing-doing-doing, but about just doing, and soaking up the full living experience. (But maybe I was wearing rose-coloured glasses, being on vacation.)

Accomplishing everything efficiently has obvious advantages for work productivity. However, when it comes to sleep, striving can actually be detrimental. Consider the saying, “can’t see for looking” – when you are searching so hard for something that you can’t see it. Sleep’s like that: The more we think about sleep and how we need to obtain it, the more likely it is to elude us.

In a recent article in The New York Times, Eve Fairbanks speaks of her voyage through insomnia-land and her sequential outlooks on sleep as influenced by books, popular media, how-to lists, Western societal attitudes, performance ideology and best management practices. At long last, she finally found “a measure of peace” only when she “stopped caring so much.” She told herself, “Maybe I can lie awake and still do my work fine in the morning.” This is indeed the key, but having this laissez-faire attitude toward sleep is more easily said than done.

We can’t be blamed for trying hard to sleep well when we are perfectionists in other endeavours and when we are surrounded by expert information on the importance of sleep, the detrimental effects of sleep loss, and how there is an “epidemic” of sleep deprivation in North America.

When insomnia occurs, however, the very act of trying to sleep lowers the likelihood of drifting off. The effort itself and the corresponding inner dialogue that tumbles away in our heads keeps us awake. Over time, themes may emerge such as: “Oh no, it’s happening again. I’m not asleep yet. I won’t get eight hours and I’ll feel awful tomorrow. I’ll be a wreck at work.”

We are built, like all animals, to respond to any perceived threat with vigilance. Racing thoughts and worries easily override our sleep system and assure alertness. In ancestral times, these adaptive mechanisms allowed us to plan nighttime escapes from predators and other dangers. But these same systems sometimes keep us awake when we are safe in our beds with no external threat.

The focus on sleep can become too much. I see this at the insomnia clinic. Some (not all) individuals can become so intent on following the directions and doing everything right that this actually impedes their progress. An easy-come-easy-go attitude is what it takes.

Sleep is something that cannot be forced. It arrives on its own when the conditions allow it and not when we are striving to capture it. In one of the first books on how to overcome insomnia, No More Sleepless Nights (1990), Peter Hauri and Shirley Linde laid out an important rule: “Never try to sleep.” Right on. This rule is oft forgotten, but should be reinstated on our lists of the top five ways to sleep well.

In some extreme cases, to bypass an intense fixation on getting enough sleep, I will suggest trying to stay awake! This paradoxical approach allows the mind to fly over the well-trodden mental pathway of trying to sleep and eases the pressure. But many people find such wild abandon a bit scary.

It is often helpful to look at the specific thoughts that go along with the self-imposed pressure to sleep. For example, if the thought is something like: “If I don’t get to sleep, I’m going to be a disaster at work,” you can tell yourself: “I might not feel the greatest but I will likely function okay.” Research shows that when we have a bad night, our next-day performance is not nearly as poor as it feels. Although work feels harder to do, there are only subtle measurable changes in our performance, usually unnoticeable to colleagues. You can see that the reality-based thought: “I might not feel the greatest but I will likely function okay” is rather boring and therefore less inclined to keep us awake than the initial stressful thought.

Another strategy is to disallow unhelpful, alerting thoughts by getting out of bed when they occur and occupying yourself with something else. Go to another room and read, do a jigsaw puzzle, knit – you name it. Return to bed when you feel sleepy. If thoughts pop up in your head while in bed, take your mind to your new, boring thought. If you’re still awake after about 15 minutes get out of bed and repeat the process.

Just remember: Never try to sleep.

Dr. Judith R. Davidson is a clinical psychologist and sleep researcher. She works with the Kingston Family Health Team and Queen’s University at Kingston. She is the author of Sink into Sleep: A Step-by-Step Workbook for Reversing Insomnia. You can follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at @JudithRDavidson

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