Few feelings are worse that tossing and turning at night stressing about how you need to sleep, only to find that same stress keeps you from finally drifting off. What's the solution to this common but highly annoying problem?

Your first reaction should probably be good sleep hygiene, such as establishing a consistent routine and avoiding screens immediately before bed, but if these basic measures fail you, are you left with no alternative but to head to the doctor and demand something to help you sleep?

Actually, no, writes Lila MacLellan in Quartz recently. Canadian researcher Luc Beaudoin may have discovered a simple mind trick that will finally help you get to sleep easily. It's called "cognitive shuffling," and the principle behind it is pretty straightforward.

Counting sheep gets an upgrade

The idea is to lull the mind into that "groggy state that precedes a sleep cycle by asking it to focus on random words and images, without making connections between them," explains MacLellan. How do you do this? Just play a simple word game.

All you need to do is pick any random word of at least five letters (not something that stirs any strong emotions for you), then focus on the first letter. Let your mind generate a list of other words that also start with that letter, picturing each word. When you run out of ideas, simply move on to the next letter in your chosen word.

Less boring than that old standby, counting sheep, the process should rapidly lull you into sleep, insists Beaudoin. And if even this mind trick sounds too difficult for you, there's an app that can lead you through the process of generating random mental images.

Why does it work?

This approach to beating insomnia sounds easy, but is it effective? Preliminary studies suggest so, but how can something so simple be effective? Beaudoin believes it works by coaxing the brain to enter the state that naturally precedes sleep.

"As the brain transitions to sleep, it stops 'sense-making,'" writes MacLellan. "It has turned off the higher-order processing functions we use during the day, allowing thoughts and images to become surreal." This jumbled, "surreal" state is the signal to the rest of the brain that it's time to switch off. Beaudoin's word game stimulates that process.

If insomnia is something you struggle with, give this technique a try and let us know in the comments if it works for you. Or, alternatively, you can test it against other expert-recommended drug-free interventions to get to sleep and see which works best for you.

Published on: May 19, 2017