To watch or not watch the clock?

Sleep Matters Perth Blog

Many people have heard the suggestion that is is best not to ‘clock watch’ over night whilst trying to sleep. Today I’ll outline how clock watching can worsen sleep and how the simple suggestion to cover the clock at night can be powerful in improving your slumber.

When we treat Insomnia, we work to reduce barriers to sleep. One of the main barriers to sleep is increased arousal. Arousal can come from tension, stress, anxiety, frustration, anger, or even resignation. Arousal can also come from being generally ‘wound-up’ (physically or mentally), or the mind being busy. This ‘hyperarousal’ may be quite obvious or it might be subtle, in either case it can interfere with sleep. Increased arousal can increase how long it takes to fall asleep and how long we remain awake for when we wake up at night. 

Mental arousal can be increased by clock watching. When people have been sleeping poorly for a long time, or when they are worried about their sleep, that there is a tendency to check the clock overnight. On the one hand, monitoring the time makes sense; when humans are worried about something, we are hard-wired to be on the look-out for the cause of the worry. Imagine us living as cavemen 100’s of years ago. It was a helpful skill to monitor for signs of danger such as a storm, a fire, or a dangerous animal. When we monitor the clock overnight we are checking to see if a poor night of sleep is threatening, and this prompts us to make plans for how we will cope with this.

So while we can understand where this clock watching behaviour comes from, we also need to be mindful of how it might adversely affect sleep. When we check the time whilst in bed at night, we then make some mental calculations: how long have I been lying awake? How much sleep have I lost? How much time is there left to sleep? These thoughts all increase mental arousal. Further thoughts may follow: Should I switch my alarm off so I can sleep in? … I won’t cope at work/school tomorrow! … I’ll be grouchy with the kids…. I’ll have to cancel my appointments…. There is now way I’m going to the gym tomorrow….I’ll get even further behind. … I hate this! … What can’t I sleep like a normal person? … My sleep is out of control.  … I’ll be like this forever! It is easy to see how this cascade of thoughts not only increases mental busyness but also leads to feelings of anxiety, worry, frustration, hopelessness, and resignation.

Sleeping with enemy 
clever study that examined the impact of clock monitoring revealed that people who watched the clock overnight experienced greater worry over night and took longer to fall asleep compared to those who did not watch the clock. Interestingly, when poor sleepers monitored the clock, they became LESS accurate in terms of estimating how much sleep they had. The clock monitoring made people think they they had slept less than they actually had.

I hope you might be convinced to experiment with covering the clock overnight. Throw a t-shirt over it, or put it under the bed. Try it for several nights and see if it makes a difference. 

An important point is that if you are awake at night, your job is the same be it midnight, 2am or 4am: as best you can, wind-down and allow sleep to happen. If you are relaxed, your body will sleep if it needs it. 

Hope this was helpful!?
Cheers, Dr Melissa Ree from Sleep Matters.

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