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Counting Sheep Counteracts Sleep: What to Imagine Instead

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Has anyone actually tried counting sheep to fall asleep? Well, I have, and let me tell you: it doesn’t work. I can last for about fifteen sheep before my brain loses interest and switches back to whatever thought or worry was keeping me up in the first place. The act of counting sheep is synonymous with sleep promotion in our culture, along with drinking warm milk and taking a hot shower. Nobody’s quite sure how that happened; it might stem from shepherds of the olden days keeping track of their flocks before bedtime. But regardless of the concept’s origins, the fact remains that counting sheep won’t help a bout of insomnia pass. In fact, it might even exacerbate the problem.

Why Counting Sheep Won’t Work
Oxford University researchers designed a study in 2002 to figure out what presleep behaviors best encourage sleep. They asked forty-one insomniacs do one of three things before trying to sleep: count sheep, imagine a peaceful scene, or go about their usual presleep routine (in other words, think about anything). Those who concentrated on relaxing imagery fell asleep an average of twenty minutes earlier than on any other night during the study. When they counted sheep or engaged in normal thought patterns beforehand, it took them longer to fall asleep. A later study at Oxford (this one conducted in 2003) found that insomniacs tend to think of more unpleasant images than people without chronic sleep problems, which might be why they have trouble relaxing enough to fall asleep. If you compare these results with those of the 2002 study, it would seem that counting sheep can be just as troublesome to your sleeping self as anxious thinking.

But while stress occupies too much of your brain’s attention to keep it from resting, counting sheep actually has the opposite effect. Oxford researchers concluded that the activity doesn’t take up “sufficient cognitive space” within the brain to distract from other thoughts. In other words, counting sheep is so repetitive and boring that most people who try to do it don’t last long enough to see any success. The brain tires of the tedium and moves on to something more stimulating, which just wakes you up more.

What makes relaxing imagery more successful? It gives the brain something to focus on that’s pleasant and peaceful. Imagining the small details of the scene—hypnotic ocean waves, or a breeze rustling the leaves of a tree—is engrossing without being overly stimulating. It distracts from the thoughts that keep us awake and relaxes our brains and bodies into calm states, creating the perfect situation for sleep.

Here’s What Does Work
Tossing and turning at night is one of the most frustrating ways to end a day. Some people might be able to count sheep all the way to slumber, but for the rest of us—who find the monotony of such an act even more frustrating—there are other ways to distract ourselves to sleep. I found a few expert tips around the Web that seemed especially beneficial. 

  • Make lists in your head. That doesn’t mean to-do lists, which would probably lead to increased stress and worry; it means random lists with which you have no personal connections. Author A.J. Jacobs, Esquire’s editor-at-large and self-proclaimed former insomniac, makes lists based on colors, such as yellow foods or red animals. Similarly, you could use the alphabet to create lists, like thinking of a car brand or city for every letter. (A is for Albany, B is for Boise, etc.)
  • Focus on your breathing and connect it to counting. For example, try breathing in for four seconds, and then breathing out for four seconds. Vary the amount of time to suit your comfort level. The point is to make each breath deep and steady, easing your body into rest.
  • WebMD blogger Michael J. Breus, PhD (also known as the Sleep Doctor), instructs troubled sleepers to imagine themselves floating through space or on a cloud, or sailing through the sea. You should be cognizant of your surroundings without interacting with them too much. And don’t think you’re limited to these three scenes—just envision whatever you find most soothing.
  • A 2009 Health magazine article recommended this technique for relaxation: focus on tightening and relaxing every muscle group in your body, starting from your toes all the way to your neck, for several seconds at a time.

I actually employed one of these methods last night and fell asleep almost immediately. It’s amazing what a little cognitive beach time can do for one’s well-being. I imagined the feel of the warm sand between my toes and the sounds of waves crashing against the shore, and that was all it took to take my mind off of the day’s worries. The next time you find yourself moving fitfully in bed, fumbling in vain for sleep, try imagining your own peaceful scene, taking deep, meditative breaths, or simply making fun lists in your head. Unless you’ve got a thing for sheep, leave the counting to the shepherds. Clearly, there are much better ways to drift off into slumber.


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