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Does counting sheep really help you sleep

01:00 Mon 18th Feb 2002 |

asks MScott:
Apparently not. New research from Oxford University found that imagining a relaxing scene was more useful.

Q. Why
Some people find that distracting their thoughts helps them to sleep, and, according to the sleep scientists, picturing a complex scene uses up more brain space than a few old sheep, and it's easier to focus on a pretty scene because it's more interesting.

Q. What sort of scenes work best
Fifty insomniacs were asked to try various imaginary scenes to see which worked best. One lot spent time visualising a relaxing scene, such as a tropical island or somewhere they had been on holiday. A second group were asked to count sheep. Yet another group provided their own distractions.

The researchers found that those who imagined a relaxing scene fell asleep 20 minutes earlier on the nights they used this technique, compared to other night. Both the other groups took even longer to fall asleep than usual.

Q. What if you have too many thoughts running through your head
Another study tried something called 'thought suppression', which means putting a worrying or negative thought straight out of your head as soon as you think of it. Volunteers who used thought suppression took an average of ten minutes longer to get to sleep than a group which didn't use the technique. So, if you fight off thoughts of the things that are worrying you, they just keep coming back. Dealing with the problem is the only way to stop it keeping you awake.

Q. What if you're worried about not getting to sleep
A. It's one of the biggest problem insomniacs face, according to Professor Jim Horne, director of the Sleep Research Centre at Loughborough University. He advises not looking at the clock, or worrying that you haven't had enough sleep. Instead he suggests that you get up and go to another room to read or do a jigsaw - not watch TV - and only go to bed when you feel sleepy.

Q. How common is insomnia
It's common for your sleep to be interrupted once or twice a night, and sleep disturbance is only a problem if you are sleepy during the day. Insomnia is when you don't get enough quality sleep - you may only get five hours, but if you feel refreshed, it's enough for you.

It's estimated that two out of three people in the UK suffer from insomnia at some time - usually because of stress or anxiety.

Q. Who is most likely to suffer from it
People who have demanding jobs, especially if they are aged 25 to 35. And Sunday night is the worst for sleep because the brain is getting ready for the week ahead.

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By Sheena Miller

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