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'Paradoxical intention' is a psychological trick you play on your mind to induce sleep – here's how to do it

How many times have you laid in bed awake at night desperately trying to get to sleep, and the more you try, the harder it becomes? It's a vicious cycle; as you try to relax and drift off, the higher a state of anxiety you work yourself into.

If you've tried body scan meditation, sorted out your circadian rhythm (don't worry, it's easier than it sounds), got on the silk pillowcase hype and still find yourself tossing and turning, then it might be time to try 'paradoxical intention'. Don't worry, it's not as Matrix-y as it sounds.

What is paradoxical intention?

Dr Katharina Lederle, sleep scientist at sleep therapy programme Somnia, explains: “If we fear something, we do everything we can to try and avoid it – and while we're doing these things, we keep looking over our shoulder to see if the thing we fear is going to happen. As a result, we feel more anxious, and the thing we're trying to avoid ends up happening. It’s a vicious cycle."

Dr Lederle continues: “In paradoxical intention, you set out to do – or wish for – the thing you're trying to avoid, thereby breaking the fear cycle. So, by doing this feared or disliked behaviour, you eventually reduce the anxiety around it. In a way you could say, paradoxical intention is prescribing the symptom you want to avoid, meaning that the performance anxiety related to sleep is reduced."

It makes sense; those of us who often lie in bed awake at night know that we cannot will ourselves to sleep. It's an involuntary process. The more we try to sleep, the harder it becomes, and we become more and more awake and anxious. It's no wonder that various studies have proven paradoxical intention to be beneficial for sleep.

This isn't the same as getting out of bed when you can't sleep, which is about avoiding the build-up of a negative association between the bed and not sleeping – nor is it the same as doing something like reading, which is a distraction method to bring about sleep, adds Dr Lederle.

How do we practice paradoxical intention for sleep?

“It means that you challenge your ‘go to sleep’ thoughts, instead telling yourself to stay awake,” explains Dr Lederle. “You might keep your eyes open while lying in bed, comfortable and quiet, even telling yourself: ‘Just keep your eyes open a moment longer.' In doing so, you're flipping the goal from falling asleep to staying awake. By giving up on the aim to fall asleep, you stop putting in the ‘effort’ to fall asleep, and that means the pressure to ‘perform’ (i.e. fall asleep) disappears. Physiologically, this means the body and brain can finally calm down and relax.”

Here is a simple method for practising paradoxical intention:

  1. Ask yourself what a good sleeper would do. The answer is nothing. Good sleepers don’t think about sleep and don’t do anything specific to get them to sleep.
  2. Adopt that mindset of ‘not expecting’ anything.
  3. Go to bed at your regular time and keep your eyes open.
  4. Set the intention to stay awake but not forcing yourself.
  5. Tell yourself: “I’ll stay awake for just a couple of minutes”.
  6. Don’t engage in stimulating activities. Just lie there with your eyes open, repeating the same intention. You should feel calmer soon.

Dr Lederle points out that paradoxical intention is best combined with other sleep therapy strategies and by working with a therapist. “While PI can be effective on its own, it might be more effective when delivered as part of a multi-component approach,” she adds.

This article was originally published on Glamour UK.

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