After Noisy Neighbors, Can You Get “Conditioned” to Be Unable To Sleep at Home?

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Reader’s Question

My friend and his wife live in a condo where they had the pleasure of living downstairs from a neighbor who screamed at people who weren’t really there and who played very loud music at 3:00 in the morning fairly regularly. This went on for several years. The neighbor finally moved on, but the misery continued awhile longer, when the new neighbor decided to renovate (or, possibly, repair) the place.

Now my friend says that even though the nightly racket has finally stopped, he still has great difficulty getting to sleep and staying asleep in his home. He turned 60 recently and wonders whether that might be part of the problem, since older folk sleep less, but he also said that whenever he and his wife visit relatives or stay at a motel, he sleeps much better. This seems strange to me because I couldn’t sleep better outside my own home and bed. So, I can’t help wondering whether over time he had learned some kind of stress response to bedtime in his own place, and that’s why sleeping somewhere else is easier for him.

Do you have any suggestions to offer him with respect to things he might try to improve his chances of getting a good night’s sleep? I would love to be able to offer him something more concrete than sympathy.

Thanks very much. I hope you can help. I’m going to bookmark this site because it looks fascinating anyway.

Psychologist’s Reply

There are certainly many possible explanations for your friend’s difficulty. However, it’s known that people can indeed become “conditioned” in a way that keeps them from having normal responses in particular environments. If that is in fact the culprit in your friend’s problem, here are some things he might try:

Change anything at all about the usual routine. This might involve sleeping in a different room or bed, getting a new mattress or bed coverings, re-arranging the room, adopting a new bedtime ritual, etc.

Systematically desensitize himself to the negative situation and gradually re-establish familiarity with the environment in which he finds it difficult to sleep. This can be done by starting out sleeping for a while in environments in which he finds it easy to sleep (e.g., a motel) and then slowly and steadily re-exposing himself to the environment in which he has difficulty sleeping.

Remove himself from the room when he’s finding it difficult to sleep. Maintaining the same surroundings and behavioral “cues” while experiencing sleep difficulties only reinforces the difficulty. So, retiring to another room and reading a book or something until he becomes tired enough to try it again might prove helpful.

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Your friend might examine the thoughts that race through his head in anticipation of difficulty sleeping. Changing those thoughts can be powerfully instrumental in restoring normal sleep behavior.

Therapists and counselors trained in behavioral and cognitive-behavioral therapy employ several different techniques to help individuals deal with difficulties such as you describe. To be sure, your friend might need to rule out other causes, but he might also want to consider visiting with such a professional if he has indeed become “conditioned” to having difficulty sleeping in his bed at home.

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