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

Myth #4: My Brain Holds My Internal Clock

Yes, the master clock, technically called the "suprachiasmatic nucleus," or SCN, is in your brain. But almost all your organs, plus your fat and skeletal muscle, follow some sort of daily rhythm as well. Your gut, liver, and kidneys in particular have strong rhythms.

That’s why you feel so lousy when you have jet lag, and that’s why you often awake groggy or feeling thrown off when you sleep in on the weekend - your whole body is affected.

And over the long term, throwing off your body clocks through overnight shift work, frequent jet lag, or just wacky sleep habits can put you at risk for some serious diseases, including breast cancer and colon cancer.

Circadian disruption is also thought to be a final push that sends some of those merely at risk over the edge. For example, only 30% of alcoholics develop liver disease. Why? Well, a 2013 study found that circadian disorganization, common in shift workers, increases “permeability of the intestinal epithelial barrier,” or in other words, a leaky gut.

In the context of what the researchers called “injurious agents,” (i.e., booze), a leaky gut puts folks at higher risk for liver inflammation and disease. They concluded that while there are many factors that determine whether someone with alcohol addiction develops liver disease, circadian disruption may be the swizzle stick that breaks the camel’s back.

Myth #5: If I Can’t Sleep, I Should Just Wait it Out...

On the contrary, if you know you’ll be staring at the ceiling for a while, get up.  Yes, your bed is cozy and warm, but here’s why you should get out of it. Much like you probably associate biting into a lemon with puckered lips and Pavlov’s dogs associated the bell with food, thereby salivating, you want to associate your bed with one thing: sleep (well, OK, two things. I’ll let you guess the other one).

When you lie in bed for more than 15-20 minutes without sleeping, you start to associate your bed with wakefulness. And when you watch TV or fool around on Pinterest either before bed or when you can’t sleep, those too become associations with bed.  

With time, bed could mean sleep, or it could also mean CSI, preschool science project pinboards, or planning your day in your head. Yes, even thinking and worrying qualify as activities you don’t want to do in bed.  

So what to do? You can still do all these things, just don’t do them in bed. Get them done before you head to bed, and if you can’t sleep after 15-20 minutes, get up and do something non-stimulating like reading on the couch or at the kitchen table until you feel sleepy. Then try again. If you still can’t sleep, rinse and repeat: get up again to avoid associating the bed with anything but sleep and sex.  

This is what behavioral psychologists call stimulus control and it’s the most effective way to combat chronic insomnia. It may take a week or two, but it’s been shown to break the bad habits that maintain insomnia.

For more immediate, in-the-moment tips for how to salvage a sleepless night, check out How to Sleep Now: Quick Fixes for Insomnia. You’ll get so good at sleeping, you’ll do it with your eyes closed!

What steps do you take to combat insomnia? What works for you? Share you experiences with us on the Savvy psychologist Facebook page. 

And don't forget to sign up for the upcoming Savvy Psychologist newsletter, chock full of tips to improve your mental health.


Davis, S. & Mirick, D.K. (2006).  Circadian disruption, shift work and the risk of cancer: a summary of evidence and studies in Seattle.  Cancer Causes and Control, 17, 539-545. 

Kahn, M., Fridenson, S., Lerer, R., Bar-Haim, Y., & Sadeh, A.  (2014).  Effects of one night of induced night-wakings versus sleep restriction on sustained attention and mood: A pilot study.  Sleep Medicine, 15, 825-832.

Summa, K.C., Voigt, R.M., Forsyth, C.B., Shaikh, M., Cavanaugh, K., Tang, Y. et al. (2013).  Disruption of the circadian clock in mice increases intestinal permeability and promotes alcohol-induced hepatic pathology and inflammation.  PLoS One, 8: e67102..


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.