THE BLOG

Looking for Sleep in All the Wrong Places

05/21/2015 08:41 am ET | Updated May 21, 2016
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Despite dramatic increases in the number of sleep specialists, national sleep education initiatives and the use of sleep medications, healthy sleep continues to elude tens of millions of us each night. In fact, there are indications that the insomnia epidemic is worsening. Consequently, millions of us desperately search for sleep. And we do so in three common arenas: medicinals, mattresses, and what I'll call magic.

We look for sleep in medicinals -- in prescription and over the counter medications, in botanicals and nutraceuticals, and in substances like alcohol and marijuana. The notion of swallowing something to help us sleep is ancient. Many prescription and over-the-counter medications, botanicals and nutraceuticals, and substances like alcohol and marijuana are, in fact, soporific; that is, they leave us feeling sleepy.

But there is no evidence that any medicinal, including so-called sleeping pills, can actually replicate natural sleep. In fact, beyond the serious health concerns associated with their use, I believe long-term dependence on medicinals can undermine our sleep self-efficacy -- our innate ability to fall and stay asleep.

I'm not suggesting that sleep medicinals are never useful -- they can be of great short-term help in times of acute stress, illness or personal crisis. But in the end, they are little more than Band-Aids, and real, sustainable healing for sleeplessness will not be found there.

We look for sleep in mattresses. It's tempting to think that a smart search and selection of a mattress will solve our sleep problems. But, looking for the right mattress today can be as challenging as buying the right car. And in some cases, just as expensive.

There's an astonishing array of both traditional and high-tech options available today. We have innerspring, foam, pillow top, gel, airbed, visco, latex, hybrid and other varieties to choose from. And we have additional options around adjustability, firmness, temperature regulation and green variables.

In many ways, a good mattress is like as a good car. The mattress is a kind of vehicle that we want to transport us comfortably and safely to the land of sleep and dreams. But just as purchasing a good car does not make one a good driver, a good mattress does not make one a good sleeper.

And then there's magic. By magic, I mean a wide array of practices that we've come to believe will facilitate sleep. We might sleep with magnets, teddy bears or wool socks. We might listen to tapes, take a hot bath, curl our toes or recite special affirmations. And we might compulsively engage in the sleep hygiene recommendations we've all heard about.

All of these practices can certainly be helpful. In fact, some are absolutely necessary. But I call them magic because, in and of themselves, they remain insufficient. Like medicinals and mattresses, even if they seem to help in the short term, they will not provide us with sustained sleep.

Effective medicinals, good mattresses and magic practices can be essential components of healthy sleep. They might help us maintain, support or even improve the sleep we already have. They can even help us clear the way for sleep to return. But when sleep is lost, we will not find it in these places.

Nor will we find sleep at bedtime. Too many of us think in terms of "going to sleep" at bedtime. But is that really possible? Can we actually go to sleep? In reality, we are going to bed with the hope and prayer of finding sleep at some appointed time. It's as if sleep hides under the covers by day to be revealed again at nighttime.

But sleep does not reside in a place or in time. Sleep doesn't live in the waking world. In fact, by definition, the waking part of us simply cannot sleep. Since the only part of us that can look for sleep is our waking self, looking for sleep actually tethers us to waking. And so, sleeplessness is frequently linked to excessive effort. We try too hard. And trying too hard not to try too hard is the very same mistake in a different form

Looking for sleep presumes we don't already possess it. It's like the proverbial absent-minded professor looking for his glasses, which are perched on his nose. In reality, we are all always already asleep. Sleep is our default -- a substrate of consciousness that steadfastly resides beneath the din of ordinary waking life. Just as silence is always present behind noise, sleep is always present behind the activity of waking life. We can't go there because we are already there.

Sleep will naturally and gradually begin to seep through when we let go of effort. Relinquishing sleep effort is about letting go of our waking self -- our sense of who we believe we are. It's about willingly losing the battle for control of sleep by realizing that falling asleep cannot be controlled. Sleep is, in essence, a free ride for all those who are simply willing to be passengers.