Overthinking These Common Sleep “Rules” Could be Sabotaging Your Shut-Eye
Fixating too rigidly on sleep guidelines can lead to anxiety and further sabotage your sleep.
While it's important to bear in mind healthy guidelines for sleep, things can actually backfire if you rigidly follow or overthink all the healthy sleep "rules" out there. It's quite the paradox.
"It's a large reason why a lot of people have difficulty sleeping," says Nicole Moshfegh, PsyD, a clinical sleep psychologist at a private practice in Los Angeles. "There may be thoughts people are unaware of that can create feelings of anxiety or frustration, or people might be unaware of how much certain thoughts are affecting them."
For instance, maybe after noticing your sleep quality diminish over a few weeks, you decide to make some changes to improve it. You read articles about how to sleep better, and try to stick to these sleep rules. That's great—but following the rules too rigidly can sabotage your Zzzs. You may jump out of bed every time you're not using it solely for sleeping, since sleep experts encourage you to keep the bed a sacred sleeping space. While this recommendation is true and helpful, "you can become a little paranoid and follow a rule in a way that's actually increasing anxiety, and not actually serving you to be in a state of mind that's consistent with sleep," says Nancy Lin, PhD, clinical sleep psychologist and founder of Go to Sleep San Diego. Here are some commonly held sleep thoughts we tend to fixate on to the point of costing us sleep.
I need to get eight hours of perfect, undisturbed sleep every night, or my day will be ruined.
You’ve heard from experts that you need seven to nine hours of sleep every night, or else. That is the healthy ballpark or sweet spot to strive toward, but don’t psych yourself out over it. When you tell yourself you won’t be able to function or that you’ll feel awful and perform terribly at work because you failed to get what you believe to be perfect sleep quantity and quality, you place pressure on how you sleep, says Moshfegh. It essentially creates a form of performance anxiety around sleep.
If I didn’t sleep well yesterday, I need to do something to compensate for it.
“When people have a rough night of sleep, oftentimes what happens is they get really frustrated with themselves,” Lin says. “The next day, they almost overdo things to make up for having not slept well.” You may cancel plans you were looking forward to, drink more coffee, take more naps, all while kicking yourself for letting it come to this, and vowing to make every effort to sleep better next time so this doesn’t happen again.
Why does a past event, a night of poor sleep, need to influence how you go about your present day? Too much emphasis on the fact that we’ve lost sleep makes it a much bigger issue in our minds and ends up perpetuating anxiety over it, affecting our sleep on nights to come.
If I even look at a screen close to bedtime, my sleep is doomed.
Say you’re trying to stick to a rule to stop watching television three hours before bed, as many sleep experts recommend, but you have a movie night with your partner that runs close to bedtime. If you’re clinging to this rule too tightly every single night, your anxiety around whether you’ll be able to fall asleep that night can increase, and may make it more difficult to fall asleep. The suggestion to curb screen time before bed is a general rule of thumb to refer to throughout your lifetime. Are you going to be able to follow it every night? Probably not—and that’s OK.
I need to have X to be able to fall asleep or sleep through the night.
Maybe it’s a weighted blanket, a white noise machine, or a sleeping supplement. “When we think we need these items in order to sleep, it’s sending our brain this message that if we don’t have these things, exact formulas, or rituals, we’re not going to be able to sleep, but that’s actually not the case,” Moshfegh says. “None of these things actually control our sleep.”
You may hold a belief that sleep is dependent on whether you have the correct environment for sleep, such as low noise levels, darkness, and a cool temperature. Yes, these are proven to help with sleep, but holding these expectations over your sleep can result in frustration and wakefulness when you cannot have it exactly as you picture. “The problem with needing something to be exactly that way, is that we set up more contingencies for what we have to have in order to sleep,” says Lin. These things may help promote sleep and are worth a try if you’d like to, but there is no need to rely on them solely.
How to let go of rigid sleep thoughts and improve your sleep.
Practice the Three C’s technique.
Moshfegh uses the three C’s technique with her clients: catching the thought, checking it, and changing it. As you’re lying in bed and struggling to sleep, notice the thoughts drifting to mind. Ask yourself what evidence you have, for and against, to conclude whether these thoughts are true. For example, is it true that I can predict my day will be awful just because I didn’t get eight hours of sleep the night before? After you weigh up the evidence, replace the thought with one that’s more rational and balanced, which can relax you and put you in a better state for sleep.
Learn more about sleep.
Knowledge is power.
To be able to accurately bring forward evidence for and against your sleep beliefs, Moshfegh advises learning about sleep from sleep specialists, either from a book they’ve written, a reputable website (like SleepFoundation.org and The National Sleep Foundation), or by consulting someone directly.
One major thing you’ll learn, or relearn, is that whether or not you fall asleep is almost wholly dependent on your internal body clock and sleep drive. When your body is exposed to sunlight during the daytime, this resets the internal body clock to cause you to become sleepier when night falls. Sleep drive is the pressure to sleep which builds with every waking hour, so after being awake for long enough, your body will eventually succumb to sleep. This is a helpful fact to use to challenge thoughts about sleep being contingent on having a “perfect” sleeping routine or environment.
Remember that these are *guidelines*—not the be-all and end-all.
Of course, sleep recommendations like having a cool, dark, quiet room are based on well-researched health guidelines, so Moshfegh recommends trying to follow them as much as possible. But it is important to remind yourself that if you aren’t able to achieve these conditions, you will still be able to sleep. It may help to think about other times in your life where you weren’t able to have the perfect conditions and were still able to sleep, says Moshfegh.
Try cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia.
Seek out a sleep psychologist who is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy for treating insomnia. They'll be able to provide you with tailored recommendations for identifying these thoughts, challenging them, and eventually changing them to reduce anxiety or frustration around sleep.
If you’re experiencing severe sleep issues, it's always best to seek professional advice from a doctor or sleep specialist.