Why counting sheep doesn’t work – and what to do instead
If you're struggling with anxiety at bedtime or just can't fall asleep, you've probably heard the advice to count sheep. Likely that advice came from someone who doesn't struggle with sleep. And for people who are great sleepers, counting sheep probably even works because they don't struggle with anxiety or racing thoughts at night.
If you do struggle to fall asleep, keep reading. Jessica Rojas, our Sleep Coach from Barcelona, dives into the details and what actually works.
A study done by Oxford University in 2002 analyzed the effect that counting sheep has when it comes to falling asleep.
The researchers divided their participants (insomniacs) into three groups, proposed a strategy for each and monitored the rates at which their eyelids closed and breathing became regular.
The first group of participants did nothing, the second group counted sheep and the third group envisioned themself in peaceful surroundings.
The study found that those who envisioned themselves in peaceful surroundings went to sleep on average 20 minutes earlier than they would normally do.
Those who counted sheep stayed awake longer than normal.
Great, just what you were hoping for, right?
To put it simply, counting sheep is too boring.
You want to distract your brain with something that will keep it occupied and engaged enough so that intrusive anxiety thoughts can't take over.
Counting sheep is a task that is too simple for our brain, so our brain just bypasses it, we get distracted and our sleep anxiety takes over again.
So, what can you do instead?
According to Jessica Rojas, our own Sleep Like a Boss expert, there are two ways to deal with this issue:
- Distract your brain and don’t let anxious thoughts in,
- Let the anxious thoughts in, but break them down and make them less scary
When it comes to distracting your brain, Jessica finds that envisioning peaceful surroundings doesn’t really work with her clients.
They envision themselves on a beach or in a forest, but they can only keep that up for a few minutes before their brain, yet again, gets bored.
So, Jessica came up with the idea of creating your own movie.
The idea is that you create a movie in your head, one scene after another and you try to make it as detailed as possible and incorporate all your senses: what you hear, what you see, what you smell, etc. and try to make your movie as interesting as possible.
Then every night, when you get to bed, you play that same movie in your head. This will help your brain stay engaged but it will also signal it that it’s time to relax and go to sleep.
What about those intrusive thoughts that might pop up right when you hit the pillow?
A strategy that you can try to implement is to actually let those intrusive thoughts in and attack them.
Here is the thing, 90% of our thoughts today are the thoughts that we already thought yesterday. You create a story in your head and you keep reliving it and if you don't change that story by actively attaching those thoughts, they will never change.
We all have these automatic thoughts popping in our head throughout the day, and that is completely normal. The key thing to remember here is that they are automatic, meaning they are not in your control. And if you have these automatic thoughts at night that keep you awake, like: “Tomorrow is going to be a bad day because I didn't get enough sleep” or “What if I lose my job?”, you need to attack them.
And the way to do that, according to Jessica, is to:
- First, ask yourself if that thought is true: Is the day really going to be horrible? Is it really likely that I am loosing my job tomorrow?
- And second, ask yourself if there is something you can do about it
Oftentimes we worry about things that didn't even happen, and they might not happen at all, or we worry about things that are outside of our control. And anxiety is all about feeling like you’re not in control. So, by asking these questions and by coming up with different solutions, you are showing your brain that you are in control and that it can relax.
Jessica’s final advice is to journal.
Get all of your thoughts out and onto paper, because once you do that, your brain will let go of them much easier, and you will feel much more relaxed when you go to sleep.
Consistency is key
Keep in mind that adopting new habits is hard. Developing these habits takes time, it takes consistency and it takes retraining your brain.
Right now, your brain is following its current routine, which is: laying in bed, feeling anxious and not sleeping. Rewriting this routine requires your brain to go somewhere it hasn't been, which again causes a bit of uncertainty for the brain in the beginning, because it's trying to protect you.
But by choosing one of the tools and doing this over and over and over again, your brain will learn the new routine and become comfortable with it, because it will be something you enjoy and that gives you peace and comfort and that is what you need to fall asleep.If you have questions or you’re interested in working with us, please reach out to one of our coaches.