two bedrooms one with a calming atmosphere and one with an anxious atmosphere

Why Can I Sleep on My Couch, But Not in My Bed?

There’s a joke about insomnia that I can relate to: Insomniacs don’t really have trouble sleeping. They can sleep almost anywhere – on the couch, in a waiting room, or in a movie theater. The only place they actually have trouble sleeping is in their beds.

I laugh at this because it seems true. I am familiar with the experience of being exhausted, dozing off on the couch watching TV, and crawling into bed thinking “I’m finally going to get a good night’s sleep!” only to toss and turn for an hour or two. Few things are more frustrating.

Creating associations

The problem seems to stem from associations that we create with our beds and bedrooms. We are constantly building cognitive and emotional associations in our minds. Maybe you’ve associated the smell of freshly baked cookies with your grandmother’s kitchen and feel happy when you encounter that smell.

Or maybe you automatically feel fearful when you see a Chihuahua because you once got bitten by one. In both cases, you’ve been “conditioned” by past experiences to think and feel a certain way.

How are we conditioned to our bedrooms?

Since we spend so much of our lives sleeping (or trying to), we easily become conditioned to our bedroom environments.

Healthy sleepers

Healthy sleepers tend to associate their bedrooms with relaxation and sleep. Night after night, they get into bed and quickly doze off into restful slumber. In the morning, they wake up in bed feeling refreshed. When they enter their bedrooms, their brains automatically start shifting to sleep mode. If you ask these lucky people how they feel when they think about their bedrooms, they might use terms like “soothing,” “relaxing,” or “sleepy.”

People with insomnia

You’ll get a very different answer if you ask an insomniac the same question. For months, years, or even decades, they’ve spent hours tossing and turning in bed. They worry about getting enough sleep and whether they will be able to function the next day. They feel frustrated, angry, or anxious. They spend more hours awake in bed than they do asleep and the bedroom becomes associated with wakefulness more than sleep. The clinical term for this is “conditioned arousal.” When asked how they feel when they picture their bedroom, they are more likely to answer “upset,” “mad,” or “helpless.”

Associating your bedroom with sleep

You can recondition your relationship with your bed and bedroom, but it takes time and patience. In general, it takes between 4 to 6 weeks to undo old associations and build new ones. "Stimulus control" is a set of techniques that can help undo your conditioned arousal. It can be summarized with one sentence: the bed is for sleep and sleep is for the bed.

The bed is for sleep

To associate your bed with sleep, you must remove all other behaviors and activities from the bed, and preferably from the bedroom.

  • Don’t do anything in bed other than sleep.  That includes planning for the next day, watching TV, looking at your phone, and even reading.  Find a comfortable place where you can do these activities outside the bedroom.  The only exception to this is sex.
  • Get in bed when you feel sleepy, but get back out of bed if you’re not asleep within 10 to 15 minutes.  DON’T watch the clock; estimate how long you’ve been awake.
  • Plan ahead of time where you will go and what you will do if you can’t sleep.  Choose a comfy chair and have your favorite book or remote control nearby.  It can be hard to peel yourself out of bed in the middle of the night, so make this option as attractive as possible.
  • Engage in relaxing behaviors until you feel sleepy.  This is not a good time to play an activating video game or watch the news.  Once you feel sleepy, get back into bed.
  • Repeat the process of getting into bed when sleepy and getting out if you don’t fall asleep as many times as necessary.  You’ll probably find that you need to do this several times the first few nights that you practice it.  Remember that it takes time to undo your previous associations.

Sleep is for the bed

  • Whenever you are sleeping, make sure you’re in bed (If you prefer to sleep in a different place due to medical issues or personal preference, apply the same logic to that location).
  • If you start dozing off on the couch, get up and get into bed.
  • If you nap, do it in bed.

With a little time and a lot of patience, you can build that healthy relationship with your bedroom and undo your conditioned arousal.

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