Watching the clock

A new study suggests your sleep-better tactics may actually be keeping you up at night.

We are all familiar with sex drive, but what about a person’s sleep drive? The topic is certainly not as titillating — since, as it turns out, when it comes to sleep, arousal may in fact be the enemy. According to a recent study from researchers at Ryerson University, the strategies we use to fight insomnia are actually causing mental stimulation and, ironically, keeping us awake.

An individual’s sleep drive, or the amount of time he or she needs to sleep, usually ranges from six to eight hours. Often we put pressure on ourselves to get a certain amount of sleep, even when our bodies cannot produce it. But, unlike sex drive, the study suggests, the best sleepers are people who don’t put in any effort.

According to the findings, the measures we take to prevent a bad night's sleep (what scientists call "safety behaviors") are often counterproductive. Out of 400 undergraduate students studied, 40 percent were found to be poor sleepers — all of whom were using safety behaviors that were not helping them sleep.

"We wanted to know how much people believed they needed to do certain things to fall asleep, and we found that people’s beliefs about using these coping behaviors were more important than how frequently they actually used the behaviors themselves," says clinical psychology Ph.D student and lead author of the study, Heather Hood.

At night, some may drink wine or take sleeping pills to fall asleep. While this sedates, it is usually just for a short time. They end up waking up in the wee hours staring at the clock, thinking about how much sleep is being lost, which arouses the brain. The individual then amplifies the consequences, thinking a bad night's sleep means completely writing-off the next day.

The spiraling continues when the sun is up. After a less-than successful time between the sheets, individuals tend to be less active: cancelling appointments, not exercising and breaking routine.

"When we scale back [in the day] people don't burn off as much energy, so they are more wired at night. You want be as active as you typically would even if you didn’t get a good night sleep to build the same amount of sleep drive as every other day," says Hood.

"It's important not to worry about the impact of sleep loss. Our bodies are quite resilient, and one night of poor sleep will likely not affect daytime functioning," says Andrea Harris, director of Ryerson’s Sleep and Depression Laboratory.

So what does treat insomnia? Hood and Harris advocate the cognitive behavioral approach — a talking therapy. But in the busy world we live in, why continuously see a therapist when doctors can hand over a prescription in one quick visit?

While sleeping pills will work, once someone stops taking the medication, an insomnia rebound is likely. With cognitive behavioral therapy there are long-standing changes, and people typically see improvement in just three to four sessions.

The therapy takes a two-pronged approach, first addressing the patient’s day-to-day behaviors. You’ll determine how much sleep you need and establish a regular sleep schedule, waking up at the same time every day and nixing a nap. You do not want to be awake in bed, so if you can’t sleep, leave the room and do something non-arousing like watching TV or reading rather than anything work or computer-related.

The second cognitive behavioral therapy prong looks at beliefs about sleep. The patient will learn to change his or her ideas about how much sleep he or she needs and how much control he or she has over the process.

"People believe insomnia happens because they are a bad sleeper or their sleep is broken," says Hood. "Because sleep is such a colloquial thing, we all have ideas about it, but they aren't grounded in fact."

We also all have a lot on our minds, and while only 10 to 15 percent of people suffer from chronic insomnia, most of us have allowed our full plates to keep us up at night. Typically it takes 15 to 30 minutes to fall asleep; if you’re up longer, there are a few cognitive behavioral therapy tricks that can be tried on your own:

Make sure to only go to bed when you are tired, even if you think you need a certain amount of sleep. Secondly, do your worrying outside the bedroom. "We recommend to set aside some time each day to write down your current problems and brainstorm solutions to alleviate those worries during the pre-sleep period," says Harris. Lastly, always schedule quiet time before bed, even if you're getting home late at night.

Behaviors and patterns are hard to break, whether in the bedroom or in broad daylight. A bad night’s sleep will often set up a self-perpetuating cycle of more to come. But learning there are ways to change without risking dependency and relapse should make you sleep a little easier already.

Read on for more sleep-better secrets.