I Can't Sleep: 5 Myths About Insomnia, Busted

At night, you can’t sleep. In the morning, you can’t wake up. Sound familiar? Get back on track with 5 myths (and facts) about sleep and insomnia from Savvy Psychologist.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #56

It’s strange to say, but sleep is trendy these days. In any culture, whatever is scarce or hard to achieve is valued. For example, thinness in a land of plenty, girth in a time of deprivation.  

So in a culture where folks get rewarded for answering work emails at 3am, not to mention the sizeable number of folks who work two jobs and go to school while raising kids, healthy sleep has become a cross between rebellion and a luxury status symbol.  

See also; How Sleep Makes You Fit


But when I say "healthy sleep," what exactly do I mean?  This week, we’ll do some myth busting and help you make the most of those precious hours in bed. To that end, here are 5 myths and facts about healthy sleep:

Myth #1: I Need 8 Hours of Sleep Each Night

Rather than a one-size-fits all approach of 8 hours, the amount of sleep an individual needs falls within a range. For you and your life, it may be anywhere between 5 and 10 hours. Only you can discover for yourself your magic number.  

Some clues? Do you fall asleep reading or watching TV? Does running out of coffee qualify as an emergency? Do you find you have to sleep in or take naps on weekends to catch up? If so, your ideal number of sleep hours is probably higher than you’ve been getting.  

Myth #2: Getting up at Night for 15 Minutes Means I Lose 15 Minutes of Sleep

Unfortunately, when life wakes you in the middle of the night, you lose way more than just those minutes out of bed. Waking to change your pajamas after a hot flash, answer the phone if you’re on call, or of course, comfort a crying baby, is harder on us than we ever thought.  

I’m surprised it took until 2014 to officially research this, but a first-of-its kind study in the journal Sleep Medicine looked at the effects of sleep interruption over two nights. The first night, all the study participants slept for 8 hours. Researchers then measured their mood and ability to pay attention. Good so far.  

A few nights later, the participants were split into two groups: half slept for only 4 hours, while the other half slept for 8 hours but got woken up 4 times for 10-15 minutes at a stretch. So technically, they spent at least 7 hours asleep - 3 hours longer than the 4-hour group - just interspersed with awakenings. Then everyone’s mood and attention was measured again.

Anyone who’s ever had a newborn or been on call for work can predict what happens next: the mood and attention of folks with interrupted sleep were just as bad as those who slept for only 4 hours. Both groups felt depressed, irritable, and had a hard time getting going. Plus, performance on the attention task got worse the longer they kept at it. Indeed, whoever coined the term “sleep like a baby” clearly never had one.

Myth #3: I Should Go to Bed and Wake up at the Same Time Every Day

Well, this is half a myth. The true half is that you should wake up at the same time every day, give or take one hour. Yes, even on weekends. What happens if you wake up later (sound familiar, Saturday morning)? Basically, you’ve incurred jet lag without getting to go anywhere. We’ll get into this more in Myth #4 in just a second.

As for going to bed at the same time, you can throw a set bedtime out the window. Instead, go to bed when you’re sleepy. When you start to droop, your eyes get heavy, or you can’t focus anymore, let yourself go to bed, even if it’s before “bedtime.”

So as promised...


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.