05/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Forget The Sheep: Try This Instead

Justwhere did the idea of "counting sheep" to get to sleep come from? Some say itgoes back to the days of ancient Britain when shepherds used a certain tallyingsystem--one that must have been so monotonous that it quickly found its way intothe sleep vernacular. But does it really work?

Nope.At least that's what a group of researchers at Oxford University are saying. In their study:

  • People took slightly longer to fall asleep on nights they were instructed to distract themselves by counting sheep or were given no instructions at all.
  • When told to imagine a relaxing scene, such as a soothing shoreline, they fell asleep anaverage of 20 minutes sooner than they did on other nights.

Conclusion: Counting sheep may be too boring to do for very long, while images of a tranquil stream are engrossing enough to concentrate on. I'm really not all that surprised. I don't remember the last time I told someone to try counting sheep.

I'venever been a big advocate of the counting-sheep ploy. The anecdotal evidence alone that I've collected through the years has been enough to tell me it isn't the magic trick. But I do know that guided imagery and mind games can be very effective. Try any of these the next time you find yourself resorting to green pastures for help:

  • Count backwards from 1,000 in groups of seven (i.e., count every seventh number from 1,000). This isn't easy. Or try 300 by 3's.
  • Imagine being an astronaut on a space walk. You're floating around the world, watching the earth rotate as you weightlessly move around it. Or, imagine floating on a cloud or out at sea on a wave.
  • Imagine that your thoughts are bubbles and let them float up through your mind to the surface of you head and then...poof! they disappear out of your head.
  • Picture your favorite, most relaxing place to be. The place may be on a sunny beach with the warm ocean breezes caressing you, swinging in a hammock in the mountains or on a desert island. Visualize yourself in that peaceful setting. See and feel your surroundings, hear the peaceful sounds, smell the flowers or the salty air.
  • Work your way through the alphabet from A to Z and come up with four- or five-letter words to each letter.
  • Spell long words.
  •  Invent your own.

Formore ideas, check out my book. And leave the sheep to themselves. Besides, when it comes to sleep "hygiene," you can do better than sheep.

Sweet Dreams,  

Michael J. Breus, PhD

The Sleep Doctor™

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Click here to order Dr. Breus's book, Beauty Sleep, on Amazon or Kindle, or here to buy it for the Barnes & Noble Nook.