Laura Schocker wrote in HuffPost of April 23, 2014:
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It’s probably the oldest sleep advice in the books (right up there with sipping on a warm glass of milk), but it turns out counting sheep in your mind’s eye probably won’t lull you into the Land of Nod on a restless night. “The idea that it puts us to sleep is one of those old wives’ tales,” says Michael Decker, Ph.D., a sleep specialist and associate professor at Case Western School of Nursing.
Anecdotally, one theory is that the idea originated when early sheep herders couldn’t get to sleep at night because they were worried about all of the sheep in their field, according to Decker. So they’d soothe themselves by counting the herd up to make sure they were all safe.
But the technique likely won’t work in your modern-day mattress. When falling asleep, it tends to be more helpful to occupy the mind with something relaxing and passive, rather than active. “You have to keep track of those sheep. It takes a lot of work to count them all up,” Decker jokes. “What we don’t want to do is activate those parts of the brain that are associated with processing information.”
(It also, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem to work in reality: Last year, Modern Farmer asked an animal scientist at the USDA’s Sheep Experiment Station, who actually counts real sheep, whether the task induces sleepiness. The verdict? “I tried counting sheep once and no, it did not help me fall asleep … It’s hard to imagine sheep jumping a fence because it is not something they do unless you don’t want them to.”)
A better bet might be to use your brain power to conjure up a relaxing scene, such as a soothing beach. In fact, a 2001 study published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy showed that amongst a group of people with insomnia, those who used “imagery distraction,” fell asleep faster (and with less stress) than those who weren’t given any instructions. The study participants were instructed to imagine “a situation they found interesting and engaging, but also pleasant and relaxing.”
Decker agrees that this type of guided imagery seems to be the best strategy to calm a racing mind. Try picturing a beautiful waterfall or planning a relaxing vacation. “We don’t want to do anything that involves significant thought processing,” he says.
Other tried-and-true tricks for falling asleep include progressive muscle relaxation, meditation or a warm bath before bed. And, as HuffPost previously reported, if you can’t fall asleep after 30 or so minutes in bed, sleep experts often recommend you get up and do something quiet and non-stimulating until you feel tired again, so your brain doesn’t start to associate the bed as a place for wakefulness — for you or a herd of imaginary sheep.”