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Brandon Peters, M.D.

30 Days to Better Sleep: Instead of Trying to Sleep, Change the Focus to Rest

By January 19, 2013

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Have you ever really tried to fall asleep? The more effort that is attempted, the harder it is to doze off. Why is it hard to fall asleep when it becomes the focus of our attention? Consider what to do when you have difficulty falling asleep and why it can be helpful to change the focus to rest.

Insomnia is commonly characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep. Whether this occurs at the start of the night, or after an overnight awakening, difficulty falling asleep may be worsened by an active mind. It can be helpful to change the focus: rather than striving and struggling to sleep, the focus should shift to obtaining rest.

We have a very peculiar ideal of sleep, and one that can be difficult to meet. Our expectation is that we will crawl into bed, fall asleep immediately, sleep soundly without awakening during the night, and immediately jump out of the bed in the morning feeling refreshed. Unfortunately, sleep is typically much more different than this, especially in the setting of insomnia.

It is normal to wake up in the night. If a loud noise didn't awaken us, we may find ourselves placed in harm's way. Though unconscious, we remain reactive to stimuli in our sleep environment. A mother quickly wakes to her crying infant, for example. In addition, we naturally wake during sleep, especially during transitions between sleep stages. As we get older, our ability to sleep uninterrupted during the night decreases. More time is spent in lighter stages of sleep and sleep may seem less refreshing.

Studies have shown that when someone is awakened from the lightest stage of sleep, called stage 1, 50% of people will say they were awake and 50% will say they were asleep. All of them are, in fact, asleep. This means that there can be a misperception about when sleep is occurring. Some people with insomnia will greatly underestimate the quantity of sleep obtained due to this misperception. If someone with insomnia has a sleep study, they may report that they didn't sleep a wink, but the objective data from the test may suggest otherwise. Therefore, light sleep in the night may occur and be perceived as wakefulness, and anxiety about not sleeping may not be fully justified.

The more our attention dwells on whether or not we are asleep, the less likely it is that we will be able to fall asleep. These thoughts are alerting. The constant checking of what state of consciousness we are in actually wakes us up. It leads to arousal and vigilance, two characteristics that undermine our ability to drift off to sleep. If we focus on sleeping, and put forth effort to do so, we will inevitably fail.

What if you set a different goal for the time spent in bed? Ideally, you would spend the night in the deepest, most refreshing stages of sleep. However, it is normal to spend time in lighter stages and even awake. This time is still restful to both the body and mind. It is also possible that time you believe to be spent awake is actually a light stage of sleep. The focus can then shift to obtaining rest, rather than striving to obtain sleep. You will never be able to force sleep to come, so give up the fight and let yourself rest. Quiet wakefulness can be a normal part of the night, and it does not need to be a source of aggravation. Learning to let go can be accomplished with a treatment called paradoxical intention.

If you find yourself struggling at night, trying with all your might to sleep, you should change your focus. By allowing your attention to shift elsewhere, you may find that you have a more enjoyable night and wake feeling more refreshed. Part of getting better sleep may be accepting rest as an acceptable alternative.

Check out the entire series, "How to Sleep Better in 30 Days."

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