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Relaxing our grip on sleep

by Dr. Jason Ong

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This post by sleep scientist Dr. Jason C. Ong is part of our Sleep Health course. You can experience the full 14-day course with a subscription to the Headspace app.

If you’re doing the Headspace Sleep Health course, that’s a pretty good indication that you’re interested in better sleep. However, it’s important that we approach that goal in the right way. Having a very specific outcome in mind when it comes to sleep, can sometimes be counterproductive.

After all, sleep isn’t something that you can just decide to do. It’s a natural process that depends on the body and mind, not just a switch that we can hit, like turning off a light. Often people who regularly experience poor sleep become almost obsessed by a particular idea related to their sleep. They might think “I have to get 8 hours of sleep to function properly,” or worry constantly about how their lack of sleep is affecting their performance at work or at home. These stressful thoughts then become the things that occur to them as they’re trying to drift off. At this point, their anxiety about sleep is actually stopping them from sleeping — and no one wants that.

Getting very attached to a rigid goal for your sleep naturally leads to worrying about sleeplessness. It also creates very inflexible expectations. Both of these things can actually get in the way of the natural process of unwinding at night.

It’s not that the thoughts themselves are wrong. It’s that the obsession with them, or inability to let them go, can get in the way of sleep. So it’s important that we can learn to relax our grip on sleep, and make space for it to occur in its own way.

There’s an idea in Buddhism called the “second dart.” It suggests that the first dart is something our enemy throws at us (in this case, a lack of sleep) and the second dart is the one that we throw at ourselves (in this case, the obsession with our goal to get better sleep). While we might not be able to alleviate the first one right away, by changing our attitude towards outcomes, we can avoid the second dart altogether.

So remember, absolutely nobody sleeps perfectly every night of their lives. To have problems with sleep is perfectly normal, it’s part of being human. Also, the regulation of your sleep across many nights is more important than any single night’s sleep. So relax your grip on sleep. Be a good host, invite it in, but don’t insist.

Dr. Jason Ong

Dr. Jason Ong is an Associate Professor in the Department of Neurology and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine's Center of Circadian and Sleep Medicine. He received his PhD in clinical psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and completed a fellowship in Behavioral Sleep Medicine at Stanford University. Dr. Ong’s overall purpose is to help people sleep better without using drugs. His research lab is supported by the National Institutes of Health, with projects using mindfulness meditation and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for sleep disorders. In addition to his research interests, Dr. Ong also has a clinical practice where he uses mindfulness and behavioral approaches to help people with insomnia and hypersomnia.

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