When you can’t sleep, the clock taunts you. “At least I’m getting seven hours,” you might think as you lie down, but if you’re still awake an hour later, then you’re only getting six hours, and six isn’t a lot. And if you’re still not tired, then it’s going to be less than six, and eventually you’re just lying in bed thinking about how fucked you’re going to be in the morning.
If this sounds familiar, it’s not just you. Sleep scientists have long recognized the idea of “losing sleep over losing sleep,” and it’s a well-known factor that can contribute to insomnia. It’s not necessarily the cause of your sleep problems, but it can make them worse.
For example, say you have some minor issue that makes it hard to sleep. You get into a cycle of stressing out over the clock at night, getting poor sleep, and then being tired the next day. Then you begin to dread bedtime, because you know it’s going to happen all over again.
Before you know it, you may be taking medications to help you sleep, which have their own health risks (nightly Benadryl is not good for you). A recent study found that “time-monitoring behavior,” as they called clock-watching, may be driving people to take medications they wouldn’t otherwise need.
So what can you do instead?
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One of the authors of that study says that it can help to promise yourself you won’t look at the time. Cover your alarm clock’s display, or if you use your phone to check the time, put it out of reach. If the alarm hasn’t gone off yet, it’s still nighttime, and that’s all you really need to know.
Without the clock, you might worry that you don’t know if you’re getting enough sleep or not. But even with the clock, you aren’t necessarily counting the hours accurately. Those hours we think we’re fully awake, we’re often drifting in and out of sleep, and we’re getting more of it than we think we are.
Another reassuring thought is that relaxation is almost as good as sleep. If you can’t sleep, lying restfully in bed with your eyes closed is the next best thing. It may give you some of the benefits of meditation, and there’s even a hypothesis that meditation gives you some of the benefits of sleep. Whether it’s true or not, it’s a comforting thought when you’re lying awake in the middle of the night.
And if you need one more reason to stop worrying, remember that relaxation is one of the best ways to get to sleep—so whether you fall asleep or not, you’re helping your body and brain by finding a restful way to spend the remaining hours of the night.