Health news website Elemental interviews Michael Perlis, PhD, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania, about beating insomnia.

One of the reasons that acute insomnia turns into chronic insomnia, Perlis says, has to do with a common mistake people make after a night or two of poor sleep. Even among those who have struggled for years with insomnia, many continue to employ this same counterproductive strategy — a strategy that is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how sleep works. On the other hand, Perlis says that one of the very best remedies for insomnia is also one of the simplest, and it works because it prevents people from making that mistake. “Do nothing. That’s what I tell people who’ve had a bad night of sleep, or two or three,” he says. “But it’s the hardest nothing you’ll ever do. And I’ll explain why.”

Perlis says that the common, insomnia-perpetuating error that most people commit is that they try to make up for lost sleep; they take naps, they go to bed early, and they sleep in late. “All of this contributes to sleep dysregulation, which is a recipe for long-term insomnia,” he explains.

When he tells people to “do nothing,” he means that they should not try to make up for lost sleep. Instead, they should stick to their usual sleep-wake routine even on days when they’re exhausted and dying for a nap or a sleep-in. “I tell people to be awake in the service of sleep,” he says. “If you build up enough sleep debt, sooner or later that will be enough to force you into deep and prolonged sleep. The ship will right itself.”(To be clear, naps can be fine for healthy sleepers, but for those with insomnia, they can make matters worse.)

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