The Sleep Hygiene Mantra: Why it Contradicts Insomnia

Sep 10, 2021

The Sleep Hygiene Mantra

If you're going through insomnia, it doesn't take long to realize that the vast majority of information out there focuses primarily on sleep hygiene. It's seemingly everywhere. 

"Enhance your sleep… " "Uplevel your sleep..." "Hack your sleep…" "Increase your sleep…" "Upgrade your sleep…" "Maximize your sleep…"

You can't escape it. 

Billions and billions of dollars are made in the sleep industry. Even I've had a few companies reach out and ask if I’d like my own supplement line, and I'm not exactly a large-scale operation here. “Fixing” sleep has become an integral part of the insomnia landscape, so why not capitalize on it?

To answer that question, I had to ask a deeper question…

Does sleep hygiene even work? Do all the rules, rituals, tips, and tricks actually help us get past insomnia?

In this blog, I discuss the pros and cons of sleep hygiene and why it contradicts insomnia.

But first, what constitutes good sleep anyway?

What Makes Someone a “Good Sleeper?”

Imagine a giant research study full of all the “best” sleepers in the world. Then, picture asking them a single, solitary question: What is the secret to good sleep?

What do you think they would say?

They wouldn’t say anything. In fact, they might not even understand the question. 

Because the secret to good sleep is there is no secret. That is the secret!

Good sleepers don't do anything to sleep better, they just go to bed and... sleep. Sleep is an entirely passive process that happens all on its own without us even trying. Kind of like breathing. In fact, it's when we intervene, that things get dicey.

I know, I know, your brain is skeptical right now. Probably thinking of all the reasons this isn’t true - (exactly what my brain would do.) After all, we’ve been told for years now that sleep hygiene is where it's at.

But sleep hygiene does not help insomnia. In fact, sleep experts consider it so useless for insomnia that it's often used as the placebo treatment in clinical trials. 

Here are three of the most significant reasons sleep hygiene contradicts insomnia: 

#1. It’s a Sleep Effort

Sleep efforts are to insomnia what fuel is to fire. Insomnia thrives on anything we do with the intention of sleeping better.

That's because when we do things to “try” and sleep, it sends a message to the brain that sleep is a problem. That it’s broken. This puts the brain in problem-solving mode which creates hyper-arousala heightened state of alertness. Hyper-arousal shuts down our natural sleep drive and causes insomnia.

So all of our good intentions to improve insomnia inadvertently perpetuate insomnia. We think we’re helping our situation when we’re really just reaffirming to our brain the fear of not sleeping.

It's completely paradoxical.

#2. It Puts the Power in Something Outside Yourself  

When we implement sleep hygiene measures, or any intervention for that matter, we put our faith in something outside ourselves. The thing is, (even though it contradicts the sleep hygiene mantra), nothing can make you sleep except: YOU. Your own sleep drive and your own body.


Furthermore, If we use an intervention and it just happens to coincide with a good night's sleep, well, then things really get tricky because now the brain believes that indeed, sleep is a problem and we need whatever “thing” we tried to fix it.

Now the thing has all the power. And trust in our own body starts to erode.

Conversely, if we try something and it doesn't work, it creates additional anxiety about sleep as we continue to try things to no avail. (I used to feel terrified that I was running out of things to try.)

#3. It Implies that Sleep is Controllable

Insomnia (the fear of not sleeping) kicks into gear when we start trying to control sleep. (Remember, it's a passive process.) Any action we take to control sleep leads to hyper-arousal and creates struggle.

Despite our best efforts, we simply cannot control sleep.

It's true that sometimes hygiene measures do temporarily work to break the cycle of insomnia. What really happens, though, is we delegate control to the sleep hygiene measure, and in doing so, give up the struggle. It's the absence of struggle that allows sleep to happen. (Just like those "good" sleepers.)

There is one sleep hygiene measure that I think can be helpful for chronic insomnia.

Having a Regular Wake Up Time

Anything we do to force sleep, or control sleep is ultimately going to create a paradoxical response.

The harder we try to sleep, the harder it is.

But one thing we can control is what time we get up. 

Setting a regular wake up time, and sticking to it (within an hour or so) can be really helpful for the brain, especially when you're in the throes of insomnia and sleep is all over the place. It creates a circadian anchor and provides some stability in the sleep system. Removing even one worry about sleep, and having a clear guideline to follow can be a big relief sometimes.

Can sleep hygiene work in any other ways?

When Sleep Hygiene Works

There is very little mystery when it comes to sleep, it's a very simple act. If we're sleepy, and we're not trying to control it, or force it, it will happen. Regardless of the room temperature, or the amount of light, or computer screens, we ultimately will sleep. Millions of people all over the world sleep with a TV on, or work on a computer in bed, and they do just fine. 

It you're using sleep hygiene because it's something you truly enjoy then I'm all for it! It may help improve sleep and it definitely won't hurt. (Although honestly, I'm not even sure it would be considered "sleep hygiene" or just something enjoyable.)

But if you're struggling with insomnia, sleep hygiene can be a slippery slope because it creates an illusion of control. Remember, insomnia happens when we try to control the uncontrollable. 

When it comes to sleep hygiene, it's all about intention. If you love the rule or ritual then absolutely go for it (I have a few things that I love for sleep, too). But if you're experiencing insomnia, sleep hygiene often turns into a sleep effort, which fuels hyper-arousal and keeps us from sleeping. 

Reach out with any questions and let me know what you think about sleep hygiene! What's helped and what hasn't?

Love + Sleep,

Beth Kendall MA, FNTP

Holistic Sleep Coach

Follow me on Instagram or Facebook where I offer bite-size nuggets on sleep, insomnia, and life ๐Ÿงก

Health Disclaimer: The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.

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