We grew up hearing that if you can't sleep, count sheep. Turns out, it is not as silly as it sounds. When we are worried and can't sleep with something on our mind, we keep going over the same worries repetitively. Indeed, we can get really revved up and unable to fall asleep. That's because thinking of worries turns on our fight/flight part of our nervous system. If we need to fight or flee, we don't want to be all relaxed and sleeping.
So, where does counting sheep come into this? Well, sheep are harmless and kind of fluffy and cute. And counting is rhythmic. So, we are doing two things that turn on our rest and relax, parasympathetic nervous system. Now, let's say you don't really want to count sheep, are there any alternatives? Actually, there are. You can imagine a beautiful ocean and make as complete a picture of the ocean in your mind. Then imagine yourself comfortably sitting on the warm sand and count waves. You can even tell yourself with each wave I am more relaxed. Or, you can count your favorite vacation spots. Imagine each one as fully as you can.
The other reason that this can offset repetitive thinking about worries is that you are doing two things, imagining and counting, and you are really working on imagining fully. When our minds are doing two things, there's not much room for a third--our worries. Our minds may drift back to worries, and we may have to push ourselves to get back to the pleasure imagining and rhythmic counting.
As with any advice like this, if it does not work, and if worries are really troubling you, try sharing them with a friend or loved one, as seeking support can really help reduce our anxiety. And if that doesn't work, it's time to talk to your family physician or a mental health professional who is trained in addressing such problems. Sleep is critical and essential to mental and physical health. Here are some tips from the National Sleep Foundation as well: https://sleepfoundation.org/insomnia/sleep-news/sleep-tips-insomnia-sufferers. Wishing you the blessing of a good night's sleep.
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Dr. Stevan E. Hobfoll
40+ years experience.