I have to watch at least one episode of “Seinfeld” in order to fall asleep. If I don’t do it, I can sometimes toss and turn for hours. To see how weird I was, I conducted an informal Facebook poll to see how many of my friends indulged in this type of bedtime TV ritual, even asking if “Seinfeld” or “Friends” so happened to serve as their sleep aid. Some admitted to favoring “Friends” because they found “Seinfeld” too entertaining and it would keep them up. Others favored “Seinfeld” for the same reason. A few others piped in with a preference for “Frasier.” One admitted “Forensic Files” was what lulled her off into a sweet slumber.
Whether you prefer a light 90s comedy or a down and dirty crime show to clear your mind, if you have trouble falling asleep you’re hardly alone: The National Institutes of Health estimates that 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep disorders. According to the National Sleep Foundation, part of a strong sleep hygiene practice is making time for bedtime rituals that relax you into a good night’s sleep. The thing is, experts discourage screen use (including TV) around bedtime because of how they can delay sleep (the blue lit screens of phones and computers, especially). Over time, poor sleep quality can lead to a myriad of health risks: a recent National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) study (part of the National Institutes of Health), linked irregular sleep patterns with a 27 percent greater chance of developing metabolic disorders.
John Sharp, M.D., psychiatrist, professor at Harvard Medical School, and author of “The Insight Cure,” says he understands the appeal of winding down with a few familiar faces seen on the small screen. “We are social beings and kind of like the sound of conversation, even if on TV or radio, and even if we are not listening,” he explained. “For many, this offsets loneliness.”
I might also find sitcoms like “Friends” and “Seinfeld” relaxing because they were made during a simpler time — before a relentless 24-hour news cycle pumped more angst into my anxiety. “Both these shows depict comedic aspects of our everydayness — helpful, lighthearted reminders of some of the absurdities of life,” says Sharp. “Folks who grew up with these shows get the double benefit because of the added comfort of the familiar. They both remind us of simpler times pre-internet and cell phone,” he adds.
I might also find sitcoms like “Friends” and “Seinfeld” relaxing because they were made during a simpler time — before a relentless 24-hour news cycle pumped more angst into my anxiety.
“There are 100+ potential reasons why a person would find ‘Seinfeld’ comforting,” says Anthony Tobia, M.D., a Rutgers University-New Brunswick psychology professor at Robert Wood Medical School who teaches “Psy-feld,” a class that references characters on the show to facilitate discussions about the broad spectrum of mental illness. “Once a show (or anything else for that matter) assists in initiating a desired behavior like sleep, individuals tend to resort to it again to achieve the same desired effect. In psychology, this phenomenon is referred to as 'positive reinforcement.'”
So, is my Seinfeld sleep aid doctor-approved?
Is this sleep habit ultimately harmful? Or is it more of an if-it's-not-broke-don't-fix-it situation? When asked, Tobia says, as long as I’m sleeping, it’s probably OK. “One potential adverse, unintended outcome may be an individual becoming psychologically dependent on the show to fall asleep. This isn't a common occurrence, but is possible,” he mentions.
Dr. Rafael Pelayo, clinical professor, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, says my habit isn’t necessarily all that bad per se, but says understanding why I feel compelled to watch these shows before bed might do me better in the long run. “Do you need some entertainment or news up until the last second you’re awake, is it providing some familiar background to help tuck you in, or are you blocking out your thoughts by having something in the background?” he asks. “The issue is not the TV, but why do you do choose to have it on. Insomniacs often begin with one thing to help them sleep that seems to work but after a while it stops working and they have to add something else. Over the years, a bunch of things are then thought to be needed to sleep and you might still sleep poorly. That is why we need to get to the root issue (of your insomnia).”
If I really want to break the habit, Sharp says I could consider planning to curl up with a relaxing book or magazine at bedtime instead — and the word “plan” is an integral part of the prep. “Pick a date on the calendar and get psyched to do something different or better for yourself, then give it a chance for a few weeks or longer,” he recommends, adding that people are creatures of habit, and habit change can take time.
Maybe I’ll give it a try. And if I find myself tossing and turning, it’s great to know that Jerry, George, Elaine, Kramer and Newman are always just a click away.
REST BETTER WITH THESE TIPS
- A Guide to BETTER Sleep
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- This Is How to Keep a Sleep Diary to Actually Improve Your Sleep
- 16 Ways to Get a Better Night’s Sleep Without Popping a Pill