I never understood how counting sheep, which I envisioned as anonymous fluffy white things, could possibly help one get to sleep. After I devised my own “counting” system for getting to sleep, I saw how it worked––but I think my method works better for those of us who are not actual flock-owners. I’d bet the figure of speech referred to one’s own sheep; livestock owners and wranglers can tell one sheep (or cow, or goldfish, or goat) from the others, and often name them. So lying in bed mentally counting your own sheep, “Old one-horn, Bent-ear, Mamma, Groucho, Blackie…” would be just like my system. But if you lack a herd of animals to count, try this:
Choose some category you’re fairly knowledgeable about. Baseball players, dog breeds, varieties of roses, countries of the world, band names, English poets, herbs and spices, whatever. Now, start naming them one by one, by letter of the alphabet. I do dog breeds a lot: Akita, Border Collie, Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Dachsund, English Mastiff….and I have never gotten past the letter “R” before falling asleep.
If you choose a “closed group,” like States of the US, you’ll have to count on your fingers to be sure you end up with the right number. I just use the fingers of one hand for the new additions, counting up to 5 and then starting again, and seem to be able to remember the total, as in “I’ll be adding these new ones to 15”. But you could use the fingers of the other hand (twice) to track finished groups of five. If I were to arrive at Wyoming and before reaching 50, then I would have to start over.
How does this work? Seems likely it is by making the mind concentrate its energies on something that has no emotion connected with it. If you just lie there and think, it is probably your thoughts that will interfere with sleep, because you’ll get into planning, worrying, anticipating, remembering, and that disturbs the gradual relaxation need for sleep.
I’ve been using this method for 20+ years, when I started planning in my mind which roses to buy and where to plant them. It can work despite some degree of physical pain or mental distress, but at some point these will defeat it. (When I said, “I have never gotten past the letter “R” before falling asleep,” I should have added that on those occasions when pain is so great that I can’t get into my concentration by about “M”, I get up out of bed. Often it helps to sit in the living room until I feel cold––getting warm in bed then relaxes me and I can sleep. Or, I read for a while and try again.) However, the technique is easy, free, portable and always available, and has no side effects or addictive potential.
When you’ve used this method for a while it becomes a soothing routine associated with sleep and that helps too.
For best results
Stack the deck in your favor by following the experts’ familiar advice: avoid exercise, heavy meals, caffeine, and excitement for several hours before sleep; keep your bedroom a comfortable temperature; don’t watch TV in bed; use a fan or other white-noise generator.
Before I start naming or counting I relax for a minute by simply making my body feel heavy, as if it is sinking deeper & deeper into the bed. I’ve tried progressive relaxation (make your toes feel relaxed and warm, then your ankles, etc.) but I cannot concentrate enough to keep out whatever thoughts or sensations are keeping me awake.