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Counting Sheep Helps with Worry
The main advantage of counting sheep is that it serves as a distraction. If you're worried about something, counting sheep gives you something else to think about without being over-stimulating. The simple, repetitive nature of picturing sheep jumping over a fence also doesn't allow you to engage in planning or problem-solving, both of which worry tempts you do, and which cause your body to release stress hormones that keep you awake.
When You Can't Sleep Due to Physical Issues
Worry is a major cause of insomnia, but it isn't the only one. If something that's going on with your body is keeping you up, counting sheep might not work. If you're experiencing mild pain, taking an OTC pain reliever is a better idea (as long as it doesn't have caffeine in it, as many headache remedies do). Also, sometimes muscle tension is what's to blame for your inability to sleep. A stressful day can leave stress in your muscles that you can't readily feel. Try doing some stretches to release the tension rather than relying on counting sheep.
Alternatives to Counting Sheep
For some people, simple counting isn't enough of a distraction. For others, keeping track of numbers while exhausted is too stressful. If you feel like you need a mental relaxation technique, and if counting sheep isn't working, try something else. You might envision walking through a field of sheep and feeling their soft, comforting wool, or you might simply conjure up a soothing image, like waves lapping on a tropical beach.
Other Classic Remedies
Of course, counting sheep isn't the only classic sleep aid worth trying. A soothing beverage often works, and warm milk has been historically popular for a reason: the proteins in milk helps your brain produce tryptophan, the same natural chemical that makes you feel tired after a big Thanksgiving dinner. Other classic techniques to try include light reading, a hot bath, or adjusting the temperature in your room. Keep trying and you'll eventually find the one that works for you.