Sleep Series pt. 3 | Practicing Stimulus Control
Welcome to Part Three of our Sleep Series! We're thrilled to take you on a journey through the world of sleep, where we'll be exploring everything from the basics to the more advanced concepts. In this series, we'll cover sleep hygiene and nutrition, sleep trackers, wearables, and more.
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, we discussed the fundamentals of sleep and how sleep stages impact our sleep quality. We already know that sleep is the ultimate life-enhancer, and by improving it, we can enhance almost every aspect of our lives. In this article, we will discuss how to improve sleep specifically for healthy athletes and tactical professionals with a focus on stimulus control.
For most of the population, the most important thing you can do to improve your sleep is to practice stimulus control before bed and in the bedroom. The reason why stimulus control is so powerful is that it conditions the mind to associate the bedroom with a place of rest and relaxation.
Stimulus control involves the following key aspects:
Going to bed when sleepy
It's crucial to understand that you shouldn't force yourself to go to bed. Doing so can lead to anxiety in the bedroom and negatively impact your sleep. Instead, go to bed when you genuinely feel tired. This approach improves sleep quality and reduces nighttime awakenings.
Getting out of bed when unable to sleep
If you find yourself unable to sleep or unable to fall back asleep, it's beneficial to get out of bed and go somewhere else to relax. Trying to force yourself to sleep will usually worsen the problem. I recommend going to the living room or another quiet space or engaging in activities like meditation or reading. Avoid using your cell phone or watching TV, as these can increase alertness and reduce your desire to sleep.
Using the bed/bedroom only for sleep and sex
This simple habit can be a game-changer for most people. As I mentioned earlier, conditioning your mind to associate the bedroom exclusively with sleep and sex reduces anxiety and improves sleep quality. To reinforce this association, avoid engaging in any activities in the bedroom that cause anxiety or increase alertness. Ideally, reserve the bedroom for relaxation and pleasure.
Leave difficult conversations, such as financial discussions or major life decisions, outside the bedroom and preferably not close to bedtime. These conversations often trigger anxiety and avoiding them in the bedroom and before sleep can lead to noticeable improvements in your sleep.
It's also important to leave work outside of the bedroom because for many high performers, being around work constantly generates anxiety. Therefore, it's essential to eliminate work-related activities from the bedroom and try to stop working at least an hour before bedtime. Remove clocks from the bedroom as well. Removing clocks helps eliminate anxiety related to waking up in the middle of the night and seeing the time, which can disrupt our ability to fall back asleep easily.
Our phones can also be a source of anxiety when they are close to us or in bed with us. What's the first thing you do when you can't sleep? Do you check your phone? For many people who struggle with sleep, reaching for their phones is a common reflex to distract themselves from stress. However, this habit often backfires and reduces both the quantity and quality of sleep.
Keep a consistent wake schedule
Waking up at the same time every day is another crucial element. Our bodies and minds thrive on rhythm. As we discussed earlier in relation to the circadian rhythm, it starts with waking up at the same time every day. This means trying to maintain a consistent schedule, even on workdays, and avoiding sleeping in for more than an hour on weekends.
Limit long naps
Lastly, be cautious with long naps. Napping can be strategically used to enhance performance but should be approached with care to avoid disturbing nighttime sleep. As we mentioned before, adenosine (sleep pressure) gradually accumulates from the time we wake up and continues building until we fall asleep again. If we nap for too long (more than 45 minutes), we release the built-up adenosine, and when it's time to go to bed, we may not have enough sleep pressure to feel tired. Remember that naps are acceptable, but long naps can have a negative impact on your overall sleep. Aim for naps that are less than 30 minutes.
By implementing these strategies, you can take significant steps toward improving your sleep and, consequently, enhancing your performance in various aspects of life. In the next article, we will explore sleep hygiene practices that complement the stimulus control techniques discussed here.
Sharma MP, Andrade C. Behavioral interventions for insomnia: Theory and practice. Indian journal of psychiatry. October 2012. Accessed June 1, 2023. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3554970/.
About the Author
Jacob Behara is a Human Performance Data Scientist at the US Army. Prior to working for the army, he spent the previous 3.5 years serving in similar positions with the Air Force Special Warfare Pipeline at the 351st SWTS and Special Warfare Candidate Course. During his time in the military Jacob has developed an affinity for sleep science and education based on objective sleep data from things like sleep wearables. Before Jacob transitioned into the tactical setting he was a strength coach with stops at the Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, the University of Kansas, Stetson University, and EXOS. Jacob has a Masters in Exercise Science from Oklahoma State University and a Bachelors in Dietetics and Exercise also from OSU. Disclaimer: These views do not represent the views of the company Jacob works for, the army, or the Department of Defense