Experts reveal how staying awake could actually help you sleep

·Lifestyle Reporter
·3-min read

Most of us know that getting a good night’s sleep can make or break your day. 

Yet, an astounding 60 percent of Australian adults regularly experience at least one symptom of insomnia (trouble falling or staying asleep).

Woman sits up in bed looking tired and holding her head in her hands.
Once you’re stuck in a cycle of not sleeping, it can be hard to know how to change it. Source: Getty Images

Insomnia can be caused by a number of factors, including physical pain, shift work, stress, and anxiety.

And, once you’re stuck in a cycle of not sleeping, it can be hard to know how to change it.


Paradoxical intention - stay awake to fall asleep

One approach that has experts excited is a psychotherapeutic technique called ‘paradoxical intention’.

Paradoxical intention is a cognitive technique that encourages someone to engage in their most feared behaviour. For someone experiencing insomnia, often the most feared behaviour is staying awake.

The technique is based on the idea that facing the fear head-on helps to reduce the fear surrounding it.

Tired man lying in bed looking at alarm clock which reads 2:11
Paradoxical intent involves facing your fear of not sleeping head-on. Source: Getty Images

Ironically for someone with insomnia, the fear of not falling asleep often stops them from falling asleep. Unfortunately feeling stressed about needing to sleep is a quick way to spend long night’s staring at the ceiling.

Hussain Abdeh, the clinical director and superintendent pharmacist at Medicine Direct, told The Daily Mail the technique encourages patients to stop obsessing over trying to fall asleep.

“Through attempting to stay awake, sleep may occur more easily. This is a form of challenging your normal mentality and sleep thought process to reduce the pressure and anxiety that you have about falling asleep," he told the publication.

“Often when we have anxiety about something we over think the problem and this can exacerbate the problem and in turn form more anxiety.

“Therefore, if a person stops trying to fall asleep and deliberately keeps themselves awake for as long as possible, the performance anxiety will be significantly lessened because they will feel too tired to be anxious."

Woman lying in bed on her stomach, her arm is outstretched, her eyes are closed and she has a smile on her face.
Experts say paradoxical intent makes it easier to fall asleep and enjoy a quality sleep. Source: Getty Images

Hussain believes insomnia is often better treated with behavioural interventions like paradoxical intention, compared to pharmacological interventions.

If you’re struggling with sleep, it is recommended to talk to your GP. And, if you’re curious to try out paradoxical intention at home, sleep expert, Phil Lawlor (Dormeo UK) suggests it’s most effective when practised under the guidance of a therapist.

“Paradoxical intention is known to be effective in the long run. The long-term effect is that it reduces anxiety during bedtime and may even improve sleep quality in most patients," Phil said.

Happy woman stretching in bed after waking up.
Paradoxical intent can be practised at home. Source: Getty Images

Here’s one simple paradoxical intention practise Phil suggests trying at home:

  • Go to bed and lie in a comfortable position

  • Attempt to keep your eyes open

  • Make sure to stay awake but don't put too much pressure on yourself

  • Give up any effort to fall asleep

  • Give up any fears about still being awake

  • Set a target for how long you can stay awake, it might be 5 minutes, and then 10 minutes

  • Avoid your phone or any stimulating activities

  • Continue to lie in bed and repeat the motions

  • When your eyelids feel heavy encourage yourself to stay awake a little bit longer

  • Say to yourself: 'I will fall asleep when it feels right for me in my own time'

  • After some time you should feel calmer

  • If you can change your mindset from focusing on falling asleep you will find that sleep will occur more naturally.

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