The answer to this question is in the “two-process” model of sleep, and in how the conditioning of habits works. Your body has two drives related to sleeping/waking: a sleep drive, and an alertness/arousal drive. That’s right – your body has a drive to sleep. Isn’t that comforting?
What’s the sleep drive? When you first wake up in the morning after a solid 6-8 hours of sleep, your sleep drive is at its lowest. Then it builds up over the day, reaching its peak about 16-18 hours after you wake.
The alertness drive: A short time before you wake up, your body releases the hormone cortisol, which cues your brain to wake up. You may have heard of cortisol as “the stress hormone,” because it is also released when you face a threat, in larger amounts. The smaller levels of cortisol are part of what regulates your being awake during the day.
Your alertness drive increases over the day with exposure to light, and then after the sun goes down, starts to fall rapidly. When your sleep drive is high and your alertness drive is low, you fall asleep.
With chronic insomnia, your brain and body have gotten in the habit of being stressed, anxious, and worried while you’re in bed. That means cortisol is getting released when you get in bed, and overcoming your sleep drive. It can feel awful.
In a place other than your bed, like your recliner, your couch, or a hotel room bed that’s not familiar, the conditioned habit is not there. Your sleep drive is still stronger than your alertness drive, and it’s easier to fall asleep.
Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia is all about re-training your brain and body so that the association between stress/worry/cortisol and your own bed is broken, and your bed gets associated with being sleepy. It can work in very few sessions – and you can get back to restful sleep.