In this modern day of age, we have gotten accustomed to using our bedroom and specifically our bed not just for sleep and intimacy, but also for watching TV, catching up on social media on our smartphones, snacking, reading, making business calls and checking emails, among other activities. In sum, the bedroom is no longer only a place for sleep and rest after a long day, but has become an office, restaurant, movie theater and much more. For people struggling with their sleep, it tends to be quite common to lie in bed when they can’t sleep, sometimes creating more mental arousal, anxiety and frustration from the situation. All together, it results in a lot of time awake in the bedroom which might make it difficult to get some sleep.
We begin to question whether spending time awake in bed is beneficial to our sleep. The answer is that spending too much time awake in bed, whether doing an activity or just tossing and turning, can result in an unwanted conditioned association between the bedroom and wakefulness rather than sleep.
This is when stimulus control therapy comes in. The goal of stimulus control strategies is to train your body and mind to use your time in bed for sleep through learned association. We want to train ourselves to think the following way: bedroom = sleep.
For example, when you go to the kitchen and see food you find tasty, you might start feeling a craving or even hunger for it and your body prepares for eating. This happens because the kitchen and related food smells and sights are already associated with hunger and eating. We want to make sure the same thing happens with your bedroom, once you are in there, the only thing left for you to do is sleep.
The way to apply this type of therapy to your sleep training is by following these steps:
- Be aware of your sleep patterns. Notice when you’ve been lying awake in bed for a while struggling to fall asleep. This can happen in the beginning or middle of the night.
- Try not to focus on the sleep you are missing out on. When you haven’t fallen asleep within approximately 30 minutes, it can be beneficial to spend some time outside your bed. Getting out of bed isn’t always a simple task, you are likely very comfortable there and getting some rest despite not being able to fall asleep. You will probably find yourself even thinking that a little longer might be enough to go to sleep, but unfortunately this is not usually the case. Therefore, it is best to get out of bed for about 30 minutes (or as long as you can). Ideally it is best to use this time to engage in any activity of value to you, like doing something you enjoy, or feel is a good use of your time or something you find relaxing. Some ideas are reading a book, watching a movie, listening to a podcast, doing some art, meditating, perhaps even cooking. Try some out and see what works best for you, just as long as you do it outside your bed. (If you have physical limitations to get out of bed, you could also try sitting up for those 30 minutes and engaging in an activity of your choice).
- After the 30 minutes of activity or when you are feeling sleepy again, head back to bed to try to fall asleep again. However, you may not, so don't worry if you don't fall asleep immediately when you go back to bed, it will come with time. Most important is to reduce the time awake in bed at night.
- If you find yourself still struggling to fall asleep and it’s been another 30 minutes, start the process over again.
The first few days trying out stimulus control can be challenging, you will probably feel tired during the day, but don’t give up! Over the following weeks you will notice that your time awake at night will decrease and you will start getting more quality sleep.
Keep in mind that any activity that can be done outside your bed, should be (except of course sleeping and intimacy). Also, it is essential to wake up on time in the mornings despite how much time you spend awake at night.
For additional support on stimulus control, reach out to your personal sleep coach.