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Sleep Restriction: Why Sleeping Less May Help You Sleep Better

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Seth Gillihgan, PhD - Blogs
By Seth J. Gillihan, PhDClinical psychologistJune 14, 2018

When I treat someone for chronic insomnia, the number one recommendation I give them is to spend less time in bed. Say what? How could less time in bed lead to better sleep?

After a rough night’s sleep we often sleep in, go to bed earlier, or take a nap. These understandable behaviors have two big downsides:

First, they interfere with your circadian rhythm, which tells your body when to expect sleep. Additionally, they lower your “hunger” for sleep come bedtime.

For example, imagine you go to bed at 10:00 p.m. and don’t fall asleep until 1:00 a.m.; when your alarm goes off at 6:00 a.m., you reset it for 8:00. If you try to go to bed at 10:00 that night, you’ll have been awake for only 14 hours, so it’s unlikely you’ll fall asleep quickly.

Lying in bed awake will also give you hours to feel anxious and irritated about your sleep. As a result, your brain will start to link “bed” with “anxious and awake,” further reducing your chances of sleeping well.

In order to fall asleep quickly and sleep soundly, we need to match our time in bed with the amount of time we’re able to sleep—an approach called “Sleep Restriction,” though I prefer the friendlier-sounding “Sleep Scheduling.” It’s a core part of cognitive behavioral therapy, the first-line treatment for insomnia. Here’s how to do it:

1. Track your sleep for one week; for each night, calculate how many hours you spent in bed and subtract the time you were awake in that window. For example, if you were in bed from 9:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m. (9 hours) and it took you 2 hours to fall asleep, your sleep time for that night is 7 hours.

2. Calculate your average sleep time for the week, which is how much sleep your body is capable of at this point.

3. Determine your wake-up time based on when you need to be up for the day.

4. Subtract your average sleep time from your wake-up time; this is your bedtime. For example, if you can sleep 7 hours per night and need to be up at 6:00 a.m., your bedtime would be 11:00 p.m..

5. Follow your sleep schedule every night for a week, continuing to track your sleep. The more consistent you are, the faster your sleep will improve.

6. Reassess after one week. If you’re sleeping 85-90% of the time you’re in bed, start going to bed 15 minutes earlier for a week.

7. Repeat step 6 if you continue to feel like you need more sleep. If your sleep starts to fall apart, reduce your time in bed to an amount that was working.

Sleep scheduling is a powerful way to align your circadian rhythm and your sleep drive, your two best friends for sleeping well. It can be hard at first as your body adjusts, but the people I’ve worked with typically tell me that restful, restorative sleep is well worth the effort.

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About the Author
Seth J. Gillihan, PhD

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a private practice in Haverford, PA. He is author of The CBT DeckRetrain Your Brain, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Made Simple, and co-author with Dr. Aria Campbell-Danesh of A Mindful Year: 365 Ways to Find Connection and the Sacred in Everyday Life. Dr. Gillihan hosts the weekly Think Act Be podcast, which features a wide range of conversation on living more fully.

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