The Golden Rule of Sleep: How to Beat the Insomnia Cycle and Overcome Racing Thoughts at Bedtime

Do you struggle with racing thoughts at bedtime?
Maybe you're dozing on the couch one second, then you get in bed and all of a sudden you're wide awake and you have no idea why. Here's a look at why this happens and why it's keeping you stuck in what I call "the insomnia cycle."

Why Your Mind Races at Bedtime: Understanding Conditioned Arousal and Chronic Insomnia

If you worry a lot about whether or not you're going to fall asleep, or if you spend a lot of time awake and frustrated in bed, your brain starts to learn that bed is a stressful place where you need to be alert. So as you start your bedtime routine and get in bed, instead of cueing your brain to wind down, it cues your brain to trigger your fight-or-flight response.
Hence why you might feel drowsy on the couch, but then struggle to sleep once you head to bed. This is called conditioned arousal. It is the calling card of chronic insomnia.

The Golden Rule of Sleep: How to Retrain Your Brain for Sleep, Not Stress

To fix conditioned arousal, you need to retrain your brain that bed is for sleep — not stress.
A great first step is to follow what I consider to be the golden rule of sleep.
The Golden Rule of Sleep: If at any point you are awake in bed long enough to feel frustrated, get out of bed, go do something enjoyable and relaxing, and go back to bed when you feel more calm and sleepy.
That said, I know following this rule isn't always easy. So here's a little extra help.

Three Simple Tips to Help You Get the Best Out of The Golden Rule:

 1. Choose activities that you actually enjoy

I often hear people suggest doing something boring like reading an instruction manual or just sitting in a chair if you're having issues sleeping at night.
Here's the problem with that: While boredom can facilitate sleep, it can also breed frustration. And frustration triggers your fight-or-flight response — which fuels insomnia.
So I generally don't like the idea of doing something boring if you're awake at night. Instead, do something enjoyable and relaxing. This works better because the more relaxed you are, the easier it will be for you to fall asleep or fall back asleep.

2. Make a sleep time activity list

It's that much easier to get out of bed if you know you'll be doing something you like once you do. So rather than wait until you're awake and stressed out to try to think of something to do with that time, make a list ahead of time.
This gives you something to look forward to rather than fearing the concept of being awake, which only makes insomnia worse.
Two of my personal favorite sleeptime activities are reading and listening to a podcast or audiobook.

3. Don't watch the clock — it doesn't matter

Often you'll hear the golden rule explained in terms of time. The typical instruction is to get out of bed if you're awake for more than 20 minutes.
But that can leave you watching the clock, thinking, "I have to fall asleep within 20 minutes or else..."
And here's the thing: You never want to feel pressured that you have to fall asleep sleep by a specific deadline, because that pressure just backfires. It makes you feel more stressed, which keeps you awake.
The good news is the effect of time awake in bed actually has nothing to do with timing. What really matters is your state of mind.
So instead of watching the clock, go by how you feel. If you're lying in bed, but you're enjoying this period of rest and relaxation, then go for it.
But if you're in bed thinking, "Oh gosh, why am I not sleeping? I'm not going to be able to function tomorrow..." then leave the bed. If you're going to have those thoughts, it's better to have them elsewhere. More importantly, you may find that once you do get out of bed, you immediately calm down because it's the bed that's invoking that response.
The more you do this, the more your brain learns to associate your bed with sleep again and starts to get the memo: head on pillow means it's time to unwind, not time to stress.



Our FREE TRAINING, "How to Get the Quality Sleep You Need Without Medication, Meditation, Quitting Caffeine, or Giving Up Screens" is packed with tips and insights to kickstart your Sleep Fix journey and teach you all about our Sleep Fix Method course. It'll help you get your mind working with you instead of against you.


I’m on a mission to help you sleep better with practical, evidence-based solutions. 

As a professional news anchor and correspondent, I saw my own sleep and health deteriorate for years. I tried one standard sleep tip after another. But they either didn’t work, or seemed completely unrealistic — and in some cases both. 

So I used my experience as a journalist and problem solver to research and consult with experts and patients all across sleep science. Together they helped me create actionable fixes that are practical, easy to understand and, most importantly, really work! 


Keeping a sleep diary is often the first thing a sleep specialist will tell you to do and it can be an incredibly valuable tool, whether you’re tackling your sleep problems yourself or seeking professional help.


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