You can’t try to get to sleep


If you have trouble sleeping it may be because the unchecked flow of thoughts keep you awake. I previously wrote about an exercise for assessing how busy the mind is (Tame the Mind). If you score high here these thoughts will become even stronger when you lie in bed with no distractions. It’s like having a huge V8 car which is revving away in the garage and using fuel and giving off smoke but isn’t actually getting anywhere.

We can measure activity in the brain using an electroencephalograph. This is a device with sensors that pick up electrical activity in the brain. We find that there are particular frequencies that correspond with how active you are. These frequencies are:

  • Beta – 15 hz to 30 hz   Waking state
  • Alpha – 9 hz to 14 hz  Half-asleep, meditation state
  • Theta – 4 hz to 8 hz    Deep meditation or light (dreaming) sleep
  • Delta  – 1 hz to 3 hz    Deep sleep

Ideally, when we go to bed we move from the beta state to an alpha state where we enjoy the lightness of the mind wandering and then slip into a theta state. When the mind is busy with thoughts, however, it stays in the beta state and we are unable to drop into the alpha state that is the precursor of sleep.

We talk of trying to get to sleep. You can’t ‘try’ to get to sleep. If I asked you to do a maths problem or to lift a heavy weight your brain or your body could perform, or attempt to perform, the activity. Sleep is not like this. It’s not an activity that we perform. What we do is to get our minds into a relaxed state where, as it were, sleep catches up with us. Some people find this concept of ‘not doing’ very difficult to comprehend. People who are outwardly successful are often problem solvers, they solve problems by thinking and doing. Sleep is not thinking and not doing.

If you have problems getting off to sleep then here are some tips:

  • Use a progressive relaxation exercise to become relaxed. Start from the head and relax each muscle down to the feet.
  • Don’t clock watch. If you have a clock next your bed turn it around so you don’t see it without a conscious effort.
  • Try to observe your thoughts rather than getting caught up in them.
  • Become aware of your breathing. Watch the breath as you breath in and out.
  • Be aware that sleep is not an activity that you try to do. It is about getting your mind into a relaxed state.

Sleep generally goes in 90 minute cycles. At the end of each cycle you would usually come to a light alpha state and may even open your eyes. You may go straight back to sleep and not even recall waking up. However, if there is something on your mind then sometimes instead of going back to a theta state, you come straight up to a beta (waking) state and then the inner chatter resumes, probably with renewed intensity.

If waking up in the night is a problem then here are some tips:

  • Remember that it is quite normal wake up in the night. Just wait and you will return to the sleep state. Use progressive relaxation.
  • Don’t put the light on. If you have to visit the toilet then make sure there is a dim night-light.
  • If you wake from a dream then try to recall the dream.

Sleep is a habit, which is why many sleep experts recommend regular sleep habits: go to bed at a regular time, have a routine you perform before going to bed, use the bed only for sleeping (or sex) – don’t lie in bed reading or watching television.

As with any habit, it can be broken or changed so if you can’t sleep it may be that you have programmed yourself to associate bed with insomnia. Try sleeping somewhere else for a few nights or change the room or the bed around to break the pattern.

Philip Braham
Phil Braham is a hypnotherapist working in Melbourne, Australia. His website is: