Reverse psychology: counting sheep

In general, the more we fight something the more it’s likely to hang around, at least in the psychological realm.

So it also is with sleep.

The more I try to fall asleep, or think I need to fall asleep, the less likely I am to actually fall asleep.

So why not try some old fashioned reverse psychology?

Counting sheep is one. When I count sheep, I subtly wish to stay awake so I can count the next one, and that makes it more likely that I’ll actually fall asleep. The resistance to being awake softens, which invites in sleep. (I actually don’t count sleep, but thought I would include it here since it’s the classic and slightly comical way to fall asleep. The comic element may actually be one reason it works, since it helps us relax the tight grip on any stressful thoughts.)

A more modern version is to count backwards from one hundred in steps of three. This requires me even more to stay alert and awake, resistance to staying awake softens, and I am more likely to fall asleep. Another thing that happens is that attention goes away from potentially stressful thoughts and to something more neutral, and that in itself is relaxing and invites in sleep.

Another is to use the four-seven-eight breathing technique. This may work in the two ways mentioned above, and may also work by physiologically relaxing us even more. (I find it easier to do it with my heartbeats in a 2-4-5-1 pattern: 2 in, 4 pause, 5 out, 1 pause.)

Then there is reading a good book. Again, it relaxes resistance to staying awake since I want to stay awake to continue reading. And it takes attention away from stressful throughs and into a world I know is imagined. I sometimes listen to a podcast before falling asleep, and it has the same effect. The podcast needs to be interesting enough so I’ll want to listen to it, and also on a topic that doesn’t trigger stressful thoughts. Language podcasts are often good for me (History of English, World in Words, Språkteigen.)

The same reverse psychology principle seems to work with hiccups. When I was a kid, my father would have me count the seconds between each hiccup and try to shorten the interval between each. That seemed to take care of the hiccups relatively quickly. (They may have ended quickly anyway of course. And I also find that I have hiccups when I haven’t had enough water, so drinking water is usually an easy cure.)

Why does wanting to stay awake (or have the next hiccup quickly) and softening the resistance to staying awake lead to more easily falling asleep?

When I resist falling asleep, I fuel stressful thoughts about insomnia. It fuels stressful through saying I need to fall asleep, I need a certain number of hours of sleep, I won’t function tomorrow etc. This stress in itself makes it less likely that I will fall sleep. Also, it makes me hyper vigilant about any signs of awakeness or falling asleep,and this interferes with the natural process of falling asleep. And there may even be a “pushing” to try to fall asleep. All things that are likely to keep me awake. So when the resistance is softened, falling asleep is more likely. There is less stress. Less concern about whether I am about to fall asleep or not and less interferences. Less pushing to try to make it happen.


Initial notes…..

  • counting sheep for falling asleep
  • works (partly?) bc trying to stay awake to count, reduced resistance, so fall asleep easier
  • same with hiccups, counting seconds between each, trying to reduce the time
  • counting backwards from 100 with interval of three
  • counting the breath, feeling sensations of the breath
  • reading a good book
  • all shifts the orientation so want to stay awake, reduces resistance, so fall asleep easier (resistance is “forgotten”, goes in the background, not actively fueled)
  • (resistance to being awake, reinforce fears / ideas around it, hyper vigilant, “pushing” falling asleep etc.)



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