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How to watch TV and also get good sleep

by Gemma Hartley

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At the end of a long day, it can be easy to plop down on the couch and lose yourself in TV. For a long time, this was my habit, day after day. I recorded tons of shows on my digital video recorder so I wouldn’t run out of things to watch. Occasionally there would be a show I was really excited to watch, but most evenings I simply passed the time.

I watched shows I was only mildly interested in, TV that I always regretted wasting time with, simply because it was my habit. Even though I suspected it wasn’t particularly beneficial for me, it felt like a  reward for surviving a long day of work and parenting.

I’m not alone in this. Many people choose to indulge in TV because it takes so little effort when you feel depleted. Still, while it may feel relaxing in the moment, it can be a habit that also negatively.affects our mental and physical health. Turning on the TV before bedtime can disrupt our sleep cycles and excessive exposure can lead to depression and anxiety.

“Anything that is stimulating to the brain before bed may be detrimental to one’s ability to fall asleep,” explains Dr. Richard Shuster, clinical psychologist and host of The Daily Helping podcast. “In fact, research indicates that watching television for four hours prior to going to sleep can result in a reduction of REM sleep.”

REM sleep is the deeply restorative stage of sleep that allows us to feel refreshed when we wake in the morning, and sacrificing it for “just one more episode” can be a problematic pattern. Shuster explains that even if we get a full eight hours of sleep, binge-watchers (whose REM sleep is suppressed) may still feel tired the next morning. [Editor’s Note: Time to listen to that Sleep meditation again.]

This probably explains why I started feeling a whole lot better once I decided to kick my TV habit. I suddenly found myself waking earlier, feeling more refreshed, and having sustained energy throughout the day (waking up earlier also encouraged morning workouts). While it wasn’t an easy habit to break, waking up feeling rested for the first time in my life made it well worth the sacrifice.

Still, sleep wasn’t the only area of my life that improved with TV moderation; my mood and productivity also soared. Coincidence? Definitely not.

Bruce Cameron, a licensed counselor who treats clients with media consumption issues specifically related to depression and anxiety, reports that binge-watching can negatively affect sleep, amongst other aspects of our lives. “The brain sorts and covers all of this material consciously and subconsciously,” Cameron says. “A person may ruminate or even obsess on certain things viewed.” This can lead to sleepless nights and difficult days. 

While turning off devices earlier to help encourage REM sleep is ideal (Shuster recommends shutting off any blue-light emitting screens at least 90 minutes prior to bedtime), we may want to rethink the volume of our media consumption overall. Never watching TV again probably isn’t realistic, but cutting back to one show a night, or reducing the total number of hours each week is an achievable goal that may do wonders for your mental and physical health. 


Artwork by SHANNON MOSS

Gemma Hartley

Gemma Hartley is a freelance writer with a BA in writing from the University of Nevada, Reno. Her work has appeared on Yahoo Parenting, Ravishly, Role/Reboot, and more, in addition to being a writer for SheKnows, Romper, and YourTango. She lives in Reno with her husband, three young kids, an awesome dog and a terrible cat.

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