Ask LH: Should I Stay In Bed When I Can’t Sleep?

Ask LH: Should I Stay In Bed When I Can’t Sleep?

Dear Lifehacker, I am having trouble sleeping. I know the reasons for it and I am working to resolve them but my question is more about how sleep works: It is generally accepted that eight hours is a good amount of sleep to feel regenerated. Currently I am only getting around five and a half hours and this has been going on for months. Is there a benefit to just staying in bed, lights off, not doing much other than tossing and turning, generally keeping my eyes closed and NOT looking at any sort of media, electronic, print or otherwise? Does it help at all to stay in bed awake until I should be waking up, or should I get out of bed when I wake up? Thanks, SoooooSleepy

Dear SS,

Sometimes when you can’t sleep at odd hours of the night, it feels like you should stay in bed even if you’re alert and wide awake. We’ve been trained since childhood that certain hours are meant for sleeping, after all. A number of studies have suggested that by staying in bed — even if you’re resting — you may be doing yourself more harm than good.

The science behind this is all about association — if you lie awake in bed all night then you will only end up associating your bed with sleeplessness and anxiety, making it harder to sleep in subsequent nights. Instead, you want to associate your bed only with sleep (or sex, but that’s a different story).

Sleepio recommends a ‘Quarter-of-an-Hour rule’ — if you are lying in bed awake for more than 15 minutes, get up and do something else. However it also stresses that you shouldn’t watch the clock — stressing about minutes ticking by is not going to help you fall asleep. In fact, it’s best not to have any clocks nearby if you are struggling to sleep. Instead, if you’re lying awake for what feels like fifteen minutes, you should get up.

Once you’re up, leave your bedroom — this helps to strengthen the association between bed and sleep, by removing yourself from it entirely while you’re not sleeping. Once you’re up, keep the lighting dim and engage in a quiet, non-productive activity like reading, doodling or listening to music. Make sure to avoid screens, however — not only the light but the connectedness (receiving work emails or messages from friends) will keep your brain from preparing for sleep.

If you’re kept awake by anxiety and worry, you can try writing them down to try and keep them from your mind when you’re meant to be sleeping. Write down what you’re worried about, and then ask yourself the following questions, suggested by Dr. Samra of the Globe And Mail:

1. What is the evidence for this worry?

2. What is the problem to be solved?

3. What can I do right now?

As a general rule, however, try not to be productive during the time you’re meant to be sleeping. If you use it to catch up on work, study or check your emails, then you will end up conditioning yourself to wake up earlier by associating that time with productivity.

Once you’re up, your goal is to get back to sleep as soon as possible, though you shouldn’t return to bed until you actually feel sleepy. Just make sure you engage in calm, low-key activities to help your brain relax and get you back to sleep. Even if you didn’t get much sleep during the night, try to still wake up at the same time every morning — it’ll help with creating a regular sleeping pattern.

Need more help sleeping? Check out our wealth of sleep tips and science.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • The only thing iv found that helps me sleep is to put on the TV.
    Even if I dont watch it, just flick it on and roll over I will be asleep within the hour. Without that Ambient noise in the background I generally stay awake till my morning alarm goes off.
    Iv tried to condition myself but too many sleepless nights made me go back to the ambient background noise

    • I have the same problem. I usually listen to podcasts instead of watching TV – there’s one called Sleep With Me which gets progressively more boring as it goes on… I’d never made it to the end.

      • lol,
        I should get my sister to read me a bed time story, every time she opens her mouth I seem to lose focus and fall asleep

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