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Counting sheep no aid to insomnia

Counting sheep is too mundane to banish worries, researchers concluded
Counting sheep is too mundane to banish worries, researchers concluded  

LONDON, England -- Insomniacs are more likely to fall asleep by imagining a relaxing scene than by counting sheep, scientists have found.

Researchers at Oxford University discovered that the traditional cure for sleeplessness, believed to date from the 19th century, does not work because it is just too boring to keep the mind off problems and concerns.

In an experiment, 50 insomniacs were asked to try different techniques to see which helped them to fall asleep more quickly. One group imagined a relaxing, tranquil scene like a waterfall or a beach. The second tried counting sheep while a third were left to their own devices.

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Those who conjured up the relaxing scene fell asleep more than 20 minutes earlier than if they did nothing. Those who counted sheep and the controls took slightly longer than normal to drop off.

"Picturing an engaging scene takes up more brain space than the same dirty old sheep," Allison Harvey, who conducted the study with Suzanna Payne, told New Scientist magazine in which details of the research were published on Thursday. "Plus it's easier to stay with it because it's more interesting."

But the researchers found that a new method for beating insomnia, "thought suppression," was also ineffective. The idea is to block an anxious or negative thought by burying it as soon as it occurs to achieve a relaxed state of mind that leads to sleep.

But Dr. Harvey found that the "suppression" group took 10 minutes longer to nod off than if they did nothing. The results replicate a pyschological study in which telling someone not to think about polar bears only encourages them to think even more about them.

One in 10 people suffer from chronic insomnia, and scientists estimate that sleeplessness costs the U.S. economy $35 billion a year in absenteeism and accidents.

"These studies represent an innovative approach to the management of insomnia," sleep researcher Charles Morin, from Laval University, Quebec, told New Scientist.

Morin said he was not surprised by the finding about the suppression technique. "The more you fight those intrusive thoughts, the more they want to come back." Tackling the underlying source of worry is the only solution to insomnia, he recommended.


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