April 20, 2014
Lamb lying on the grass

Better Than Counting Sheep

by Berkeley Wellness  |  

Most people with insomnia say they’re unable to empty their minds and turn off worrisome or emotionally arousing thoughts at night. The harder they try, the worse it gets. This often morphs into anxiety about not being able to sleep, which only worsens matters.

One traditional remedy is counting something (sheep, for instance) or distracting yourself in some other mindless way, thus lulling yourself into oblivion. Well, counting sheep usually doesn’t work, according to most research—it’s simply too boring to keep distressful thoughts away.

Psychologists at Syracuse University in New York have been studying another way to battle insomnia: cognitive refocusing treatment. It involves doing personally engaging yet non-arousing mental tasks (such as reciting lyrics from favorite songs or plots from books) while trying to fall asleep and when waking up during the night. The researchers recently tested this approach in college students with insomnia, who initially met with a therapist to choose their own tasks, which they tried for a month.

According to the study, which was published in the journal Behavior Therapy, this strategy tends to be more effective than standard sleep advice (such as counting sheep) because it uses “personalized cognitive scripts that are more appealing and easier to focus on.” In addition, by focusing consistently on one mental task, people come to associate it with sleep, which strengthens its effect. An earlier study by the same researchers found this training also helped older people with insomnia.

Strategies like this are part of what’s called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which involves changing your behavior by altering the way you think. For insomnia, the goal is to recognize and try to change thoughts and feelings about sleep that cause stress and thus exacerbate sleeplessness. Research shows that such therapy is often more effective in the long term than sleeping pills. If cognitive refocusing and other self-help steps don’t solve your sleep problems, you may want to consult a therapist who specializes in CBT.