Med thumb magic trick

For a trick to work, a magician needs to divert attention at a critical moment. If the audience sees the mirrors or trapdoors that make the illusion possible, the show is ruined. To keep the crowd from focusing on the act’s mechanics, stage performers distract them with smoke and stagecraft.

When you’re lying awake watching the numbers on the clock tick, you can’t wave a wand and make sleep appear. But distractions and tricks can play a crucial role in making it happen. The audience, in this case, is your overtired brain. Not to beat a metaphor silly but you need to divert its attention while your body works its magic.

In studies, sleep researchers have explored the effectiveness of different methods of tricking your brain into sleep. While mileage will vary for different approaches, Janet Kennedy, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and founder of NYC Sleep Doctor, says the goal is always the same: distracting your mind from sleep-related anxiety.

“What tends to happen when sleep is a struggle is that people get very anxious about sleep in general and start to develop performance anxiety,” Kennedy said. “And any time you’re anxious, your body is going to release adrenaline, which is the opposite of what you need when you’re trying to sleep.”  

"Any time you’re anxious, your body is going to release adrenaline, which is the opposite of what you need when you’re trying to sleep.”

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, Kennedy says trying to stay to stay awake is one reliable way to get more tired. A 2003 University of Glasgow study found that insomnia sufferers slept after practicing paradoxical intention, a cognitive therapy technique requiring them to concentrate on holding onto wakefulness. Kennedy said it works because the mind is no longer focused on trying to sleep.

“We all know that when you try to sleep and it doesn’t happen trying harder just makes it worse,” she said.

If you’re stressed about lying sleepless in bed, it sometimes helps to use your mind to travel someplace else in your mind. In 2002, Oxford University researchers found that visualizing peaceful imagery could help settle a restless mind. Focusing on pleasant scenes keeps people from engaging with worries and concerns as they try to sleep. Kennedy recommended making the pictured scene feel as real as possible; think of the breeze in place, how sunlight feels on your skin or what sounds can be heard. The more authentic it feels, the easier it is to allow yourself to relax.

Researchers have found certain odors can influence how quickly we fall asleep. For instance, a 2005 study published in the medical journal Biological Psychology found the smell of peppermint increased reduced fatigue and increased alertness.  The same year, the journal Chronobiology International published a study finding that lavender scents aided sleep.

It works because the mind is no longer focused on trying to sleep.

But despite the research, don’t throw away your mint stash and stock up on scented candles just yet. Kennedy said that while aromatherapy can be relaxing, no scent will instantly put you to sleep.

“Lavender can be part of your routine if you find that it soothing,” Kennedy said. “But it’s not a magic substance.”

Kennedy said visualization exercises and mental games can be helpful for relaxation but can backfire when people can’t lose themselves in the scene. Sometimes it’s better to busy your brain with a puzzle or game that requires a degree of concentration. You could try memory games or a number exercise such as counting down from 100 in threes. Kennedy said those sort of tasks can be helpful tools but can lead to frustration when an engaged mind worries about getting closer to sleep.

“The most important thing with mental games or relaxation or meditation exercise is that you remember that the job of the exercise is to distract you and help your body relax,” Kennedy said. “It’s not meant to put you to sleep.”

Kennedy’s chief recommendation for clients would be familiar to anyone with a stack of dog-eared paperbacks on their nightstand: reading fiction. She said fiction engages people by transporting them into an imagined scenario and pulls focus from stress.

“It requires some effort, but it’s not too tough,” Kennedy said.