You can stop counting sheep. There's a more effective trick to use when you're ready for bed but your brain just won't quit, found a new study presented at SLEEP 2016, the annual meeting of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society.

It involves visualizing a series of random words, places, people or scenes right before you want to fall asleep, a method known as serial diverse imagining (SDI). It works in two ways. First, it interrupts negative or stressful thoughts and redirects your attention. "When you're focused on visualizing a banana, you can't also be thinking about how your marriage is in trouble," says lead author Luc Beaudoin, PhD, adjunct professor of cognitive science and education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada. Second, SDI primes your brain for sleep. "Your mind naturally wanders as you fall asleep, and it's not a side effect of drifting off—we believe it's part of the process," says Beaudoin. "This task gets you into that imaginative, mind-wandering state."

In the study, researchers recruited 154 college students with a history of trouble falling asleep and separated them into three groups—one did 20 minutes of SDI in bed every night, a second was assigned to do structured problem solving (journaling about things that were worrying them so, in theory, they'd feel like they'd already dealt with their concerns when bedtime came around), and a third group did both.

After a month, the researchers found that SDI and structured problem solving were equally effective at decreasing the effort it took to fall asleep while improving sleep quality. The biggest difference: In the group that tried both techniques, twice as many subjects said that they felt SDI worked better and six times as many said it was easier to use.

Study subjects used software on their phones to do SDI (with audio prompts of what to visualize), but Beaudoin has a DIY, tech-free version too. Here's how to do it: Get into bed, turn off the lights, lie down and close your eyes. Think of a word—literally any word—that doesn't repeat letters. For example, blanket. Picture a blanket for roughly 8 to 10 seconds (it's fine if you're not exact on the timing), then think of a new word that also starts with "b," visualize it, and repeat that process until you're bored with words that start with "b." If you're still awake (Beaudoin says people often start to feel sleepy before they finish with the first letter), move onto the second letter in the word and continue until you're asleep. If you'd rather have some guidance while you're doing it, Beaudoin has also developed an app called MySleepButton that uses the same SDI technique as in the study. Use whatever approach works best to help you stop thinking, start imagining, and most importantly, get some sleep.

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