Does the idea of willing yourself to sleep feel impossible?
If you find yourself wired in bed, some experts actually recommend using reverse psychology by telling yourself you’re not tired — a technique also called paradoxical intention. Chances are you’ll have more luck falling asleep doing that, especially if you have insomnia.
But if paradoxical intention doesn’t help you fall asleep, then you should probably avoid continuing to lie restlessly in bed. When sleep is your ultimate goal, lying in bed with your eyes closed will ultimately backfire. Your bed should be a sacred space, one reserved only for sleep.
“The human brain is a pattern-recognition machine,” says Michael Grandner, Ph.D., an associate professor and director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. “Your bed should create a sleep response, so that when you get in bed, your brain knows you’ll be falling asleep soon. The more time you spend awake in it, the more you dilute that response.”
Stressing about the fact that you’re not sleeping is obviously counterproductive, says Kelly Glazer Baron, Ph.D., director of the behavioral sleep medicine training program at the University of Utah. That’s why most sleep specialists recommend getting up and doing a relaxing activity outside of bed until you feel sleepy.
However, this does spark the question: Is lying in bed with your eyes closed ever actually helpful? The answer: Yes, and it’s called quiet wakefulness.
But there is a time and place, and a journey of trusting the process. If you’re not intentional about how you relax in bed, you’ll fall into the trap of diluting your relaxation response in bed, as Grandner mentioned.
The mental and physical benefits of quiet wakefulness
Quiet wakefulness is the restful activity of lying with your eyes closed. Sleep doctors and specialists use this term to reference how the activity may help eliminate the performance anxiety around sleep. As you learn to rest through quiet wakefulness, you are also practicing the relaxation stage before sleep.
If you’re worried about being awake in bed, or are pretty confident you won’t be sleeping, opt for lying down on another surface like your couch or a yoga mat. This way you’ll avoid associating your bed as a place of stress or sleeplessness. You can switch back to lying in bed with your eyes closed when you feel confident about being able to enjoy the moment and without worrying about the to-dos that come after.
Otherwise closing your eyes and lying still for 15 to 20 minutes could be mindful “exercise” you need for your overall sleep health — almost be like taking a nap without the pressure of accidentally oversleeping.
“[Closing your eyes for a break] helps restore balance between sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems,” explains Dr. Brandon Peters-Mathews, a sleep medicine doctor at Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle and the author of “Sleep Through Insomnia.”
Quiet wakefulness could sidestep the nap hangover and let you jump back into a busy schedule with less anxiety.
“Any anxiety- or stress-inducing stimulus, like work, can rev up your fight-or-flight response, which increases heart rates and blood pressure,” Peters-Mathews says. “Closing your eyes literally shuts out that sensory input, which can help to slow the heart rate down and drop blood pressure a little bit, shifting more towards your rest and digest response.”
Studies back the benefits of rest. In one older study done at the University of California, San Diego, people who rested performed the same on a visual test as those who actually napped. In more recent research, closed-eye resting was shown to have benefits for memory and motor skills.
Super anxious? Steadily increase your rest-and-digest time by setting a five-minute alarm. When you are able to forget about time and trust your alarm, increase it to 10 minutes. Eventually you may even be able to take a real power nap.
If you do fall asleep, that’s OK
“It’s likely that you may even experience some light, or stage one, sleep,” says Baron of lying down with your eyes closed.
Stage one sleep is a short period during which your heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements slow, your muscles relax, and your brain waves begin to slow, explains Peters-Mathews.
If you are worried about falling deep asleep and upending your schedule, set an alarm. This can help bypass the urge to constantly check your phone and may even give you the energy to tackle a task that overwhelmed you before. A short nap (even just 10 minutes) can immediately increase alertness and boost cognitive performance for up to three hours, a study found.
Sleep is still the highest form of rest
For the record, shutting your eyes for a few minutes is not the same as a good night’s sleep. If you are in sleep debt or have chronic sleep deprivation, this won’t help you recharge in the way you will with real sleep. But there is a lot you can learn from resting with your eyes closed.
For one, you’re learning how to relax, which an important stage before a night of sleep. Expecting to fall asleep the second your head hits the pillow can actually be detrimental to your overall sleep journey and ramp up more anxiety or stress.
“Sleep is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon,” says Peters-Mathews. “You might feel like you’re conscious and aware, but parts of the brain will be slowing down or slipping into unconsciousness and you would be unresponsive to your environment.”
Baron recommends giving yourself 15 to 20 minutes in bed to practice relaxation techniques like breathing, visualization, and progressive muscle relaxation. “Meditation techniques won’t make you fall asleep but will make you more receptive to sleep,” she says. “You need to allow sleep to happen.”
And from what we’ve learned from the experts, allowing sleep doesn’t come from wanting it enough, but from entering a stage of relaxation and allowing that feeling to takeover until you’re suddenly asleep.