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Want a better night's sleep? Stop looking at the clock, study suggests

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Are you often finding yourself lying awake at night, trying to figure out how many hours you’ll get if you can just fall asleep at that exact second?

If this is a familiar scenario, it might be helpful to know this strategy may actually be making it harder to fall asleep, according to a new study.

Researchers from Indiana University discovered in a recent sleep study of nearly 5,000 people that watching the clock while trying to fall asleep made participants more likely to have more trouble falling asleep and more likely to turn to sleep aids.

“We found time monitoring behaviour mainly has an effect on sleep medication use because it exacerbates insomnia symptoms,” Spencer Dawson, clinical assistant professor and associate director of clinical training in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, said in a press release.

“People are concerned that they’re not getting enough sleep, then they start estimating how long it will take them to fall back asleep and when they have to be up. That is not the sort of activity that’s helpful in facilitating the ability to fall asleep — the more stressed out you are, the harder time you’re going to have falling asleep.”

Insomnia can affect anywhere between four and 22 per cent of adults, and can contribute to long-term health problems, with associations to cardiovascular disease, diabetes and depression.

In this new study, researchers presented roughly 4,880 patients enrolled in a private sleep medical centre in Albuquerque, New Mexico, with questionnaires regarding their insomnia levels and their sleep habits. The results were published Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Primary Care Companion for CNS Disorders.

Participants were asked to rate how bad their insomnia was, and disclose their nightly habits, such as whether they used medication frequently to try and get to sleep and whether they found themselves checking the time while frustrated over their lack of sleep.

Around 1,558 participants met the criteria for chronic insomnia disorder.

The data showed that participants who scored higher on time-monitoring behaviour also reported more regular use of sleep medication. Those who fit the criteria for chronic insomnia disorder were more likely to use sleep medication regularly as well.

Those with chronic insomnia are recommended to receive cognitive-behavioural therapy, according to researchers, but with barriers to accessing this care, it’s more likely for people to turn to over-the-counter sleep aids.

While these may be able to help someone sleep in the short term, previous research has connected continued use of prescription and over the counter sleep aids to higher risks of cognitive impairment, dementia, psychiatric disorders, cancer and even higher mortality rates.

Researchers said that trying to avoid time-monitoring behaviour may help patients sleep better and cut down on the usage of sleep medication.

“One thing that people could do would be to turn around or cover up their clock, ditch the smart watch, get the phone away so they’re simply not checking the time,” Dawson said. “There’s not any place where watching the clock is particularly helpful.”

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