Train Your Brain for Better Sleep

Author: Grace Seamon-Lahiff

Remember Pavlov’s Dogs, who got so hungry they started to drool when he heard the sound of a bell? When it comes to sleep, we are often just like those dogs. Have you ever been dog tired (puns are fun) at the end of the day, only to feel wide awake the moment your head hit the pillow? This typically happens when, like Pavlov, we have trained our brains to associate our bed with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors other than sleep. 

Let’s say that you are having trouble sleeping but you are determined to get your full eight hours. So every night you go to bed at the exact same time, regardless of whether or not you are tired. All night long you toss and turn, yelling at your brain to quiet down, and peering at your alarm, making deals with yourself. Shouting to yourself  things like “If I fall asleep right now, I can still get in 4 hours!” Then, after hours of arguing with your loud brain and your not-tired body, you close your eyes and enjoy 10 minutes of blessed sleep before your alarm goes off.

A hand holding a glass trying to scoop up stars from the skyPhoto: Javardh via Unsplash

If this sounds familiar, you have trained your brain to associate your bed with feelings of stress, anxiety, and self-psychological warfare. Just, like Pavlov trained his dogs’ brains to initiate a hunger response when they heard a bell. 

This may be even worse in times of high stress, like the stress of living through COVID-19. The good news is, you can untrain our brain and retrain it to associate your bed with that all-important, life-saving balm — a good night’s sleep.

The following tips come from the manual on Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), and can be found in summary, for free on the VA’s CBT-I sleep coach app.  

1. Only go to bed when you are sleepy, not when you are tired. 

In everyday conversation, particularly when speaking to small children, being sleepy is synonymous with being tired. In the realm of sleep, however, they are quite different. For example, when I wake up in the morning, I might feel tired until I get my first cup of coffee, but my tiredness did not prevent me from waking up and shuffling into the kitchen to make said cup of coffee. Therefore, tiredness is really about feeling low on energy. Sleepiness on the other hand, is that feeling of not being able to keep your eyes open or being so sleepy that you sleep through your alarm. Sleepiness, not tiredness, is our inherent need for rest. Because of this, the first cardinal rule of improving sleep quality is to only go to bed when you are sleepy. Even if that means going to bed at crazy hours. This will help to retrain your brain to associate your bed with sleepiness, instead of fitful laying down, brain shouting. 

2. Only use your bed for sleep and sex.

Truly. Just as you want to associate your bed with sleepiness, you don’t want to associate it with school work, work work (especially now that you may be working from home), reading, laundry folding, and especially not TV watching. The TV’s blue light will keep you up by tricking your brain into thinking the sun is out, and any content you may be watching is likely to stimulate your brain. Similarly, if you are using your computer, phone, or tablet before bed, it is important to turn on your blue light filter, to avoid cerebral trickery. After all this, you may ask why you can have sex in your bed. The answer -- scientists haven’t been able to stop people from doing it, so it remains the one exception to the bed activities rule. 

3. Cut back on the stimulants before bedtime. 

Because caffeine can remain in the body for 4 to 5 hours after consumption, sleep psychologists recommend cutting out caffeine any time after lunch. However, real-life sometimes requires a 3 p.m. pick-me-up. So, if you go to bed after 9, you’re safe if that 3 o’clock cup is your last. As nicotine has a shorter shelf life in your bloodstream, the suggestion is to smoke your last cigarette or put in your last dip no less than two hours before you go to bed. 

4. Create a wind-down routine. 

Between dinner, work, school work, kids’ bedtimes, TV, and the 1,000 other things we have going on, the buffer between awake and sleep can be as short as the time it takes you to brush your teeth. This is where creating a bedtime ritual becomes vitally important. Whether it’s setting aside time for prayer or meditation, getting some fancy face masks to use after you brush your teeth, or simply turning off the TV an hour before bed to read or journal, a wind-down routine can help prepare your body and your brain for rest. 

5. Be kind to yourself. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an average of 35.2 percent of adults in America report getting less than 7 hours of sleep a night. A statistic which can vary depending on age, race, ethnicity, and geographic location. So if you are struggling to fall asleep, stay asleep, or find enough time in the day to sleep, take a deep breath. Almost half of the country is right there with you, and we are all just trying to do our best. As with most things, making one small change can make all the difference. 

For more information on how to get better sleep, check out the award-winning podcast “A Better Night’s Sleep”, download the CBT-I Coach App, connect with a CBT-I trained therapist, watch this awesome TAPS Talk on “Catching some Zzz’s”, or read this article on Grief and Sleep.

Grace Seamon-Lahiff is a military brat, a military spouse, and a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). She is currently getting her PhD at Catholic University and works for TAPS as the manager for Research and Impact Assessment. Prior to coming to TAPS, she served as a mental health clinician for Marine Corps Community Services, providing therapy and creating preventative mental health programs.