If You Have Trouble Falling Asleep, Cut This Word From Your Vocabulary
People who struggle to fall asleep tend to have a few things in common: Bags under the eyes, frequent yawning, and a thirst for all things caffeinated being the obvious ones. Through the years of meeting with sleep-deprived patients, board-certified sleep specialist Rafael Pelayo, M.D., has also noticed a more subtle connection: They all tend to use the same language to describe bedtime.
The problem with "trying" to sleep.
"People who have sleep problems on a regular basis talk a certain way that nobody else talks," says Pelayo, who is also a professor at Stanford Medicine and the author of How To Sleep: The New Science-Based Solutions for Sleeping Through the Night. "The phrase that you'll often hear people say is that they try to go to sleep."
This word choice may seem innocuous, but Pelayo says that it speaks to a defeatist mindset and can therefore put a real damper on restfulness.
He considers someone's state of mind to be one of the four main indicators of sleep quality (along with the amount, quality, and timing of sleep) since the brain can quickly dysregulate sleep. He explains it like this: If you are someone who breaths a healthy 12 times a minute, chances are you aren't actively thinking about this cadence. It just comes naturally to you. But if someone came up to you with a timer and forced you to take 12 breaths a minute, you'd likely mess up.
The same goes for sleep: The body is naturally equipped to get a certain amount of it each night, and overthinking things can get in the way.
"You don't try to breathe. You don't try to get hungry. These are biological rhythms," Pelayo reiterates. "You can only try to sleep by staying awake."
How to adopt a new sleep state of mind.
Anyone who has struggled with occasional insomnia knows that changing your mindset around sleep is easier said than done. Here, Pelayo offers up some ideas that might help you reframe bedtime as something you don't try to do but get to do:
Remember the value of a solid night's sleep.
While missing out on it is certainly no fun, in general sleep is an all-around awesome activity that we get to do every day. It's a time to rest the body, restore the mind, and escape from the responsibilities of waking life. The next time that sleep starts to become just another chore or difficulty, remind yourself of all the positive aspects of it that you really appreciate.
Think about what you do know about the day ahead.
"We sleep best in states of serenity, and we sleep worst in states of uncertainty," Pelayo explains. To mitigate feelings of anxiety and uncertainty—and take your mind off of the chore of trying to fall asleep—he recommends thinking about what you know you're going to be doing the next morning as you're lying in bed.
Walk through your morning routine in your mind, homing in on the details: the coffee brewing, the teeth brushing, the breakfast making. While you might now know exactly what the day ahead has in store, there's a good chance you'll be doing these things. By reminding yourself of them, you're acknowledging what you do have control over and putting your uncertainty-averse brain a little more at ease. (This is also a good strategy to employ any time generalized anxiety strikes.)
Have trust—and cut yourself some slack.
While getting high-quality sleep is certainly important for your health, poor sleep is not necessarily the end of the world. Consider the fact that new mothers need to wake up every few hours to nurse children. This trait is proof that our bodies have evolved to manage without sleep from time to time. "It's important to understand that sleep will come," Pelayo says. "Sometimes, it's all right not to sleep."
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.