Why Cognitive Shuffling Can Help You Sleep
6 min read
Last Modified 14 November 2023 First Added 5 October 2023
As one door closes, another one opens. For some, this can be the case when trying to fall asleep. When you close your eyes, the doors to your mind open. Thoughts can start racing through the brain, and anxious feelings can arise. With the silence of the night and lack of interruptions, falling asleep can be a challenge, so much so that it can become a sleeping disorder.
However, psychologists have developed a cognitive behavioural technique that could help insomniacs get much-needed rest. In this article, we will discuss why the cognitive shuffle may be the trick you need to fall asleep quickly.
If cognitive shuffling is unfamiliar, you may be confused about why it has anything to do with sleep. At first glance, a cognitive shuffle may sound like a dance craze you missed out on! Lucky for you, it isn’t.
A cognitive shuffle is a cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) technique designed to distract the mind from thoughts that are preventing you from falling asleep. Perhaps you’re in bed worrying about work, or maybe you are stressed about how long it is taking you to fall asleep. A cognitive reshuffle can distract your brain away from these thoughts through a mental task that is engaging enough for you to feel less anxious, but easy enough for your brain to know that it is time to rest.
Dr. Caroline Buzanko, a psychologist specializing in anxiety, gives a thorough explanation of this distraction technique:
When we look at the underlying mechanism for cognitive reshuffling, it is based on the cognitive defusion principle. Essentially, this means that we disrupt the coherent narrative structure of intrusive thoughts can facilitate emotional regulation.
In the context of sleep, the technique involves mentally reshuffling the events or images that occupy the mind in a random, non-coherent manner. The process aims to disrupt the worrying or ruminating patterns that inhibit the onset of sleep.
Quite simple, right? But how exactly does this technique work in helping us get to sleep?
For anyone who has experienced insomnia or occasionally has thoughts rumbling through their head whilst trying to sleep, these thoughts are in the form of verbal thinking. Most of the time, you’ll talk to your inner voice, which triggers your frontal lobe into problem-solving mode. By doing so, you are actively telling your brain that it is not ready for sleep.
This research was conducted by the founder of cognitive reshuffling, Luc Beaudoin, a cognitive psychologist who has spent his career studying pre-sleep cognitive activity. His research also explains that you fall asleep by visualising images. When your pre-sleep conscious mind creates these ‘micro-dreams’ that tell your brain that it is safe to sleep. From what we know from evolutionary theory, our brains are programmed to only go to sleep when it is assured that there is no danger or threat.
Unfortunately, encouraging your brain to avoid thoughts of worry can be difficult. Even if you struggle to fall asleep because of excitement or if you sleep somewhere unfamiliar, it activates the brain with stress hormones. With cognitive reshuffling, the aim is to encourage your brain to avoid any thoughts that trigger a stress response and activate this ‘micro-dream’ state associated with pre-sleep mindsets.
Here is an example of what a cognitive reshuffle will look like. You can use this very same example tonight when trying to fall asleep.
Our seed word is ‘BED’
Think of words beginning with B and imagine them, e.g. bucket, binoculars, basketball, brush…
If falling asleep due to random thoughts and insomnia is common for you, CBT may have been a treatment you’ve been prescribed before. CBT techniques all aim to distract the brain and programme a relaxing state of mind that encourages your mind and body to rest. Here are some CBT terms you may have come across:
A technique prescribed to insomniacs who commonly have negative thoughts, cognitive reframing aims to suppress negative thoughts and replace them with more positive ones. Jeffery Rossman studied the effectiveness of this technique with people with insomnia and discovered cognitive reframing reduced participants’ worry about sleeping, helping them fall asleep faster.
Meditation is also a common CBT practice. The theory is that you will be more relaxed by clearing your mind before sleeping, focusing on breathing, reducing muscle tension and relieving the body of stress hormones. You can try many meditation techniques to help you sleep, which can be done before or while in bed.
Although not medically prescribed, counting sheep dates back to the 12th century and is still used as a common CBT technique to encourage sleep. It works as you distract yourself from worries and concerns by imagining sheep and counting them as you go.
Meditation, cognitive reframing, and counting sheep have drawbacks that make the effectiveness of the techniques inefficient compared to cognitive reshuffling. This is due to the engagement and amount of activation these tasks conjure, as Dr. Luc Beaudoin justified in his research. The act of meditation is useful, but it takes time and knowledge to complete effectively, which is a problem for someone wanting to fall asleep quickly.
Although there have been successful studies into the effectiveness of cognitive reframing, which found that insomniacs fell asleep faster by imagining a ‘tranquil waterfall’ compared to the test group and those counting sheep, it still isn’t enough to disrupt wakeful thinking as people find it easier to transition back into negative thought patterns. With cognitive reshuffling, however, there is enough engagement and focus away from conscious thought patterns to drift into slumber.
If you find it difficult to get sleep due to insomnia, or maybe you need to sleep on public transport, try cognitive reshuffling. And if the example we shared doesn’t work, Luc Beaudoin has his very own app, mySleepButton, to lead your cognitive shuffle. If that is too tedious, why not try listening to a podcast, such as the Nothing Much Happens or Sleep With Me Podcast. Both podcasts follow the cognitive reshuffling technique, encouraging you to envision the stories the presenters tell.
If you would like to find out more about sleep science, explore all of our guides and advice from the Sleep Matters Club.