Many things in our lives are influenced by learned cues in our environment. This includes our sleep habits. Do you know someone who heads to the bedroom with the intention of reading a book, or watching TV, only to find themselves barely being able to keep their eyes open, and falling asleep shortly after? This is common for someone who is a ‘good’ sleeper. That is, someone whose bed is associated with what it’s meant to be associated with…. sleep. On the other hand, a ‘poor’ sleeper typically reports many nights of lying awake for hours on end. For these people, the bed has become a place of stress and frustration, and may even be triggering an arousal response. In short, the bed has become a strong cue for wakefulness.
Some poor sleep habits
Over time, poor sleepers have usually engaged in certain behaviours that have contributed to the bed becoming a place of wakefulness. This may have included:
- Using the bed as a place of work, to watch TV, to play games on their phone, or to talk about difficult matters with their spouse.
- Going to bed because their spouse is, as opposed to when they feel tired and drowsy.
- Lying in bed and ‘trying really hard’ to sleep. Unfortunately, this tactic backfires and actually leads to increased physical and mental arousal, again contributing to wakefulness and making it harder to fall asleep.
How to establish good sleep habits
The aim of developing good sleep habits is to unlearn the association between bed and wakefulness, and strengthen the association between bed and sleep. Below are 5 tips to help get you started on turning the bed into a place of rest and sleep.
- Keep the bed for sleep and sexual activity only. Don’t use the bed for anything other than sleep and sex. This will help your body to start associating bed with sleep. Sorry everyone, but this means no watching TV, working, studying, or playing on your phone in the bedroom. You can do these things… just do them outside of the bedroom. Refrain from heading into the bedroom more than 30 minutes before you expect to turn the lights out.
- Keep a consistent routine. Pick a time that you want to head to bed, and a time you wish to wake up. Keep these times the same, even on your days off, weekends, or when you’ve had a bad night sleep. Also, get out of bed within 30 minutes of waking up in the morning. Remember, we’re building the association between bed and sleepiness… not bed and wakefulness.
- Only go to bed when you feel drowsy. Again, this will increase the association between bed and sleeping, and reduce the amount of time you lay in bed awake, restless, and trying to force sleep. Learn to listen to your body for drowsiness cues (e.g. head nodding, yawning, eyelids drooping) as opposed to external cues (e.g. the clock, your spouse’s bedtime).
- No clock-watching. Getting caught up with what time it is will likely only lead to increased stress and frustration about not being able to fall asleep. It will also lead to negative thoughts such as “Oh no, I only have 5 hours to sleep… I’m going to be so tired tomorrow”.
- The half-hour rule. If you’ve been lying in bed for about 30 minutes (an estimate is fine, as we don’t want you watching the clock remember), hop out of bed and go to a different room. Engage in a relaxing activity (e.g. read a book or watch some TV) until drowsy, then head back to bed and attempt sleep again. This will assist with taking the attention away from trying to fall asleep and the subsequent frustration that prevails. Repeat this process as many times as necessary until you fall asleep.
Please note: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you are considering a sleep treatment please consult your doctor or medical professional. This post may contain affiliate links.
Dr Danielle McCarthy
Danielle is a Clinical Psychologist and the Director of a private psychology practice, Mind Potential Psychology. Danielle is passionate about spreading tips and information about mental health issues both online and offline.