A Healthy Bet (2) – Fighting Insomnia

A Healthy Bet (2) – Fighting Insomnia

As it appeared in Ante Up Magazine – Dec. 2008

By Frank Toscano, M.D.

You’re in the zone. You’ve got a great read on the table bully and he falls head first into your subtle trap. He looks confused and stunned when you take down the hand. As the dealer passes you the sugar, deep within the pleasure center of your brain, thousands of neurons squirt out little jets of dopamine. You sigh with contentment. Your heart rate and blood pressure go up just a little. All is right with the world.

Except that the hand occurred over three hours ago and you are actually in your bed trying to get some sleep while that hand keeps playing over and over again in your head. Each time you spring your trap in your imagination the dopamine surge makes it feels good all over again. You smile with satisfaction against the pillow but you still can’t sleep. So, because it feels good, you set it up in your head and play it again. What is going on here and how do you stop it?

Unless you make your living playing poker, it’s probably those little surges of dopamine pleasure that keep you coming back to the game over and over. The feeling is a bit like launching a three-pointer from NBA range, or chipping out of a deep bunker and stopping inches from the cup. The feeling is exhilarating, addicting. The problem is you don’t want exhilaration. You want sleep. Here’s how you can get it.

It’s tempting, of course, to play out satisfying hands in your head because that little burst of pleasure still feels great even hours later. You must resist for two reasons. First, the degree of mental alertness required to set up the trap in your head interferes with the neuronal “power-down” needed for sleep. And second, the dopamine pleasure surge is a neuro-stimulant. Its effect is similar to a tiny snort of cocaine or crystal meth. Not a state of mind that is conducive to sleep. Just so that there’s no confusion on this point, let me be clear: cocaine/crystal meth – bad thing; squirt of dopamine – not bad thing.

Instead, if you really want to think about poker as you drift off, think of a simple repetitive action that requires little or no brain power on your part, like dealing cards or shuffling chips. Even if you are not a dealer or a chip shuffler, imagine that you are and visualize the action over and over, again and again. It’s a rhythmic action that requires no mental set up and has no dopamine payoff in your brain. There’s a reason that insomniacs have traditionally counted sheep and not Hooter’s Girls. As you begin to get sleepy, it’s much easier to eventually let go of the visualization (of the chip shuffling, not the girls) and drift off to sleep.

A similar situation occurs when you’ve been running badly. You punish yourself at the poker table for bad decisions, and continue later in bed by releasing neurotransmitters, this time a different chemical in a different area of the brain, but the effect is the same. Later, in bed you replay the hand in your head and then chastise yourself with a sensation of regret. No sleep for you bad boy.

There are a few other strategies you can employ as well. First, try better to control your emotional investment at the table. Good beats and bad beats happen and you should just focus on making the best decision every time, not the actual outcome. In other words, don’t tilt, good or bad. Most of us who aren’t Bobby’s Room regulars may still have some work to do to control that particular aspect of our game.

Second, watch what you consume at the table. Where I play the coffee is strong, bitter and loaded with caffeine (up to 200 mg – the same as NoDoz). And it’s not just the coffee. All manner of super-caffeinated “energy drinks” (100 – 300 mg) are available that will irritate your stomach, speed up your heart and cause your brain to ruminate for hours. Even colas can have up to 55 mg. Stick with Sprite, 7-Up or just plain water.

So, unless you’re playing poker to pay your rent, relax. Enjoy the game. Try to remember what you did well and poorly at the table so that your game can improve, but leave the exhilaration or regret behind when you leave. Avoid the many forms of caffeine available in your poker room. And when you hit the bed, forget about the perfect (or terrible) hand you played. Shuffle some chips and get some sleep.

Play healthy!