How does my time spent awake in bed affect my insomnia?

I have insomnia and read that I should get out of bed if I am having difficulty sleeping, instead of just tossing and turning. But won’t getting out bed when I cannot sleep just make my insomnia worse? How long should I lay in bed if I cannot fall asleep? How will I know when I should try to sleep again?

Doctors Answers (1)

Gary K. Zammit, Ph.D.
Answered on: 6/19/2014

The practice of getting out of bed when awake is a component of a behavioral treatment for insomnia known as "stimulus control." Allow me to give you some background on it. Several years ago, smart sleep researchers concluded that some insomnia are learned responses. They used classical the conditioning theory developed by Ivan Pavlov (a discovery for which he was awarded the Nobel prize) to postulate that laying awake in bed night after night causes an individual to develop a "learned response" to the bed. Specifically, the bed becomes a "stimulus" that results in the learned response of hyper-arousal or wakefulness (a "conditioned" or learned response in Pavlov terms). If these researchers were correct, they hypothesize that breaking the learned association between the bed and wakefulness might prove to be a treatment for insomnia. In their studies they instructed people to go to bed when sleepy, but get out of bed if they were not asleep within 20 minutes or so (timed in their heads). They could return to bed when they felt sleepy again, but should repeat the process. Allow 20 minutes to fall asleep, but if not asleep, get out of bed. The test subjects could do this as many times as needed in a night. What the researchers found was remarkable! Test subjects started out by getting out of bed many times during the first few nights of the program. However, by the end of only a couple of weeks of nightly use the test subjects were not getting out of bed much at all - which meant they they were sleeping through the night. You can follow this type of program at home. Take a look at one of the good sleep help books on insomnia to learn how master this technique on your own. You have a good chance of improving your sleep. Remember, if you try this at home and it doesn't work, talk to your doctor. You do not have to suffer with insomnia.