If you are looking to gain muscle, lose weight, maintain your health… whatever your goals are, good sleep is at the foundation of that. It plays such a crucial role in recovery and proper body and brain functioning.
Yet, an estimated 30% of adults struggle with symptoms of insomnia.
In my article, Why Do I Crave Sugar In Front Of The TV? I explain the story of Pavlov’s dogs and the origin of the concept of classical conditioning, where one stimulus (e.g the sight and smell of food) becomes linked with another (e.g watching tv) to produce an automatic response (e.g hunger) for the stimulus that previously didn’t elicit that response. That is, feeling hungry as soon as you sit down to watch tv.
From classical conditioning came operant conditioning, where positive consequences to a behavior increase said behavior and negative consequences decrease it.
Sounds simple, right? But when you learn about positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment it becomes a bit more complex.
How does conditioning work in these top sleep tips?
- Working from bed
I’ll admit, I have a huge problem with this. From studying to checking work emails, I have a long history of doing this from the comfort of my bed (one can only sit at a hard desk for so many hours). Or, I might simply spend hours in bed scrolling facebook, instagram, and looking at memes. Whatever the activity, working and screen time makes the brain stay alert.
With more and more people working from home since the pandemic, I’m sure this isn’t just a problem that affects college students.
Can you guess which type of conditioning comes into play here?
Well, one stimulus (work and screen time) produces a response (our brain in “awake” mode) which gets tied to a second stimulus (being in bed) to produce a conditioned response of feeling awake lying in bed. Can’t get your brain to relax when you’re settling into bed at night? This could be why.
- The importance of a ritual
What’s your bedtime ritual? Do you stay up late working until your brain hurts and then jump into bed? Create a unique ritual at bedtime. Once I get sleepy I take a warm shower, light a candle, create tomorrows to-do list, read a good book or listen to some calming music, and sometimes do some light stretching.
One of my goals is to get into meditation that is specific for bedtime. I believe the more specific the behavior is to bedtime, the stronger of a stimulus it can be, facilitating that conditioned response of calming down and getting ready for sleep.
Just as activities associated with alertness while in bed will keep us awake in bed even when we stop doing those activities, activities that we do while sleepy can be conditioned to make us sleepy and help us fall asleep easier.
- Have a set bedtime and stick to it
In another article I discussed how our eating schedule conditions us to become hungry at a certain time. Likewise, when we keep a set sleep and wake schedule we condition ourselves to become sleepy at a certain time and alert at a certain time. If you struggle calming down at bedtime or waking up in the morning, it could be because your body’s conditioning for these things has been thrown out of whack. Psychologists say these habits and routines are the most important part of treating sleep issues, however, I believe they are also the hardest to stick to. This is a goal I am actively working on.
- Staying in bed even when the insomnia is strong
This ties back to my first point of not working in bed. Don’t stay in bed if you’re not tired. I used to hear this time and time again and think, “Why does it matter? My bed is comfortable and I seek that comfort even if I’m not asleep.” But it does matter. Remember, your behaviors can get conditioned in ways that work against your health.
When I first started going to the gym to workout I was miserable, unhappy, and anxious. However, I stuck to it and pushed myself to do workouts that I found fun and got my endorphins flowing. After a while, I began feeling good and relaxed as soon as I stepped foot into the gym. It became my happy place. My brain automatically associated the gym with that euphoric like endorphin high. Getting myself into the gym stopped becoming a struggle.
Likewise, when we create set bedtime rituals and schedules that we stick to we can eventually create conditioned responses that serve to keep us healthy. On the other hand, we can continue working and scrolling social media in bed, and lying there in comfort even when we’re not tired, and condition behaviors and responses that may harm our health long term.
We may not feel like we have control over many of our physiological responses (trouble sleeping, sugar cravings, motivation to get into the gym) because these responses become automatic. But there are some physiological responses that have been conditioned that we can have some influence over.
We don’t have control over the things that happen to us, our thoughts, or our feelings, but we do always have control over our actions.