As a teenager it took me hours to falls asleep.
I remember one particularly bad night of insomnia so vividly that it could have been last night.
A rolled over, opened my eyes, and saw the clock staring at me mockingly:
I’d been lying in bed unable to fall asleep for 4 hours!
It was the first semester of my senior year of high school and I was one of those overly-ambitious types who decided to apply to 16 different colleges.
And for some reason, my brain decided that 10:00pm in my bed was the best time to think through all the details of which parts of my applications still needed to be completed, which teachers still hadn’t filled out letters of recommendations, and all the terrible ways my life would be worse off if I didn’t get into my top schools.
It was like as soon as my head hit the pillow my brain decided it was time to get to work and kicked into high gear. I remember thinking: Where was this mental energy when I needed it in my Algebra test?
Like so many folks with insomnia, I was desperate to figure out a way to turn my thoughts off in bed, but the harder I tried the worse it got. Which then lead to me worrying about not being able to fall asleep on top of my other worries.
Of course, at the time it didn’t really strike me that I had Insomnia (if I’m honest, I’m not sure I knew what insomnia actually was as a 17 year-old). But looking back, I could almost certainly have qualified.
Little did I know that my cure for my insomnia lay right around the corner in my freshman dorm room…
How The Simpsons Taught Me to Fall Asleep
Pretty quickly into our first semester at school, my roommate and I settled into an evening routine that was bound for sleep greatness.
See, after a long night of… um… studying in the library… we got into this routine of opening up my laptop, putting it on the desk facing our beds and playing a disc from his collection of Simpsons DVDs.
We’d watch a couple episodes and then (amazingly!) just fall asleep (conveniently, the laptop would just shut off after an hour or so.)
We did this little routine religiously every night.
Eventually, we’d watched all the episodes so many times that we’d wake up in the morning and neither of us could remember which episode we had watched since we both fell asleep before the opening credits even ended!
For someone who was used to it taking a few hours rather than minutes to fall asleep, this was borderline miraculous!
Thanks to my roommate’s DVD set of The Simpsons, I hadn’t had a single night of difficulty falling asleep.
After college, I continued to fall asleep to TV shows from time to time, but amazingly, I found that I didn’t need to. Even on nights when I didn’t watch something, I fell asleep within a few minutes of laying down.
Fast forward a decade plus, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times it’s taken me over a half an hour to fall asleep.
So, yes, The Simpsons utterly changed my life for the better.
As a Sleep Psychologist, here’s how I explain what happened.
Ironically enough, I’m a psychologist now who specializes in treating insomnia.
And the single biggest factor in insomnia is thinking too much about sleep.
Specifically, worrying about not being able to fall asleep is the best way to kick your brain out of sleep-promoting Relaxation Mode and into wakefulness-promoting Work Mode.
When we worry about not being able to sleep, we counterintuitively make it harder to simply fall asleep.
Consequently, anything that prevents us from worrying about (or ideally even thinking about) our sleep will help us fall asleep.
For years, I built up a habit of getting into bed, worrying about all sorts of stuff, then worrying about not being able to fall asleep. Which means that for years I was teaching my brain to associate the act of getting into bed with mental arousal and anxiety.
Just like Pavlov’s dog’s learned to associate the sound of a bell with impeding chow time, which caused them to start drooling, I had learned (unconsciously) to associate my bed with worrying, which lead to anxiety, arousal, and insomnia.
Classical conditioning at it’s finest.
Talk to any good behavioral psychologist and they’ll tell you that there’s only one cure for a classically conditioned response: Extinction.
Back to pavlov’s dogs: If you ring a bell enough times and don’t deliver the food, eventually the dogs will learn that the sound of a bell no longer means chow time and they’ll stop salivating.
Similarly, if you’ve conditioned your brain to wake up and start worrying each time you get into bed, the key to eliminating (extinguishing) that response is to get into bed repeatedly and not worry.
That sounds great—just don’t worry—but I’ve tried and I just end up worrying more!
This is where The Simpsons come in…
Of course you can’t lay in bed and try not to worry. Thought suppression simply doesn’t work. And the mere act of trying to do anything in bed is counterproductive since it puts your brain into Work Mode.
What the Simpsons did was give my mind a non-threatening, non-effortful object to focus on instead of my worries or my sleep. In other words, they allowed me to be in bed without worrying.
The Simpsons taught me how to fall asleep without trying.
In the short-term, this meant that I simply fell asleep a lot faster. Which was great!
But more importantly, in the long-term it extinguished my brain’s association between bed and worry. Which meant that I could get into bed now with nothing and I would still be able to sleep.
Most people with insomnia have a hard time falling asleep because they’ve conditioned their bed to be a cue for thinking and worry, which means stress and anxiety, which means not sleeping. Rinse and repeat enough times and you’ve got full-blown insomnia.
In order to undo this bed-thinking association, it can be extremely helpful to provide your brain with an object of focus that is engaging enough to prevent you from worrying but not so stimulating or arousing that it prevents you from falling asleep.
Turns out, funny TV shows that you’ve seen dozens if not hundreds of times already are a really good way to do that.
So if you just can’t seem to turn your mind of when you’re in bed, cue up The Simpsons, Seinfeld, or some other sitcome you’ve seen a hundred times already and give your mind a break. You just might fall asleep.