Log on to beat insomnia
We’ve all heard about the power of positive thinking. But will it help me sleep?
My problem isn’t falling asleep — it’s staying asleep. This particular form of torture has been dubbed “sleep-maintenance” insomnia. Call me a high-functioning sufferer: I’m usually OK once I’ve had my morning coffee. But I worry about the long-term health ramifications of losing sleep.
Now several medical organisations have endorsed a treatment known as cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I. In May, the American College of Physicians advised its members that CBT-I was the first treatment they should offer patients with insomnia.
I wanted to try it, but there is a shortage of trained therapists with expertise in CBT-I. I didn’t want to wait for an appointment; I just wanted to solve the problem.
So I decided to try an online sleep program. Persuasive data that internet-based programs are effective is piling up, and a recent review of clinical trials reported that insomniacs improved their sleep as much after online CBT-I programs as they did after face-to-face CBT-I counseling.
Internet programs are likely to be cheaper than most therapists. I downloaded a five-week course called Conquering Insomnia for $40. Another online CBT program called SHUTi charges $135 for 16 weeks of access to a program, which includes a series of six sessions and follow-up for 10 weeks. Both programs provide individualized feedback on weekly sleep logs.
The developers of these programs say they want them to be accessible to as many people as possible. One in 10 people have insomnia.
“The number of clinicians nationally who know how to do CBT for insomnia is a couple of thousand. We need 100,000,” said Dr. Gregg Jacobs, a sleep medicine specialist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who developed the Conquering Insomnia program. “There are tens of millions of people out there who have insomnia.”
What I like about CBT-I is that it’s very no-nonsense. It’s focused on problem-solving. You won’t find any soul-searching about the deep psychological reasons you can’t sleep at night, just a lot of good information that will challenge some of your assumptions about sleep.
The program stresses good sleep habits, often referred to as sleep hygiene. Get up and out of bed at the same time every day. Don’t sleep in more than a half-hour on weekends, even if you are sleep-deprived (Sorry, I know that hurts). Varying your wake-up time throws off your body’s wake-and-sleep rhythms. Use the bed for sleeping and sex and that’s it. Develop a bedtime routine.
But the key element of cognitive behavioral therapy is cognitive restructuring, which challenges you to reframe negative ways of thinking that can become their own self-fulfilling prophecies. So if you’re lying awake thinking about what a basket case you’ll be tomorrow because you’re not asleep, well, that thought alone will keep you awake.
CBT asks you to look at the situation differently, and replace the negative thought with a positive one.
“I’ll fall asleep eventually.”
“I can handle this if it only happens a few nights a week.”
“I usually function pretty well even when I don’t sleep.”
As part of my therapy, I started recording my sleep and wake times every morning in a sleep log.
The first one I emailed in for feedback looked like Swiss cheese, with two-hour holes in my sleep pattern three or four nights a week. I awaited the response with trepidation.
The email I got back said I had broken a lot of the rules. My wake-up times were all over the place. I was spending too much time in bed and too little of it sleeping.
The program offered me a new sleep plan. For next week, I am to wake up at 7 a.m. every day since this seems to be my natural inclination, based on my sleep log. And I have a new bedtime: midnight, not a moment before.
And even though my sleep is often interrupted, the CBT process asks me to reframe this information. The reality, Jacobs told me, is that I am getting six total hours of sleep a night, and should use this as “a positive sleep thought.”
A recent meta-analysis of CBT-I found that CBT-I worked equally well whether it was delivered in person or online. CBT-I users gained, on average, an additional 20 minutes of sleep a night and had an improved mood after the treatment.
Other reviews have been less effusive, finding people fell asleep faster and slept better after online CBT, but still woke up in the middle of the night, and didn’t get more sleep overall.
Some health care providers are skeptical. One concern is that some insomniacs may have another psychiatric disorder that needs to be addressed, such as depression or anxiety, or a disorder such as sleep apnea, said Jennifer L. Martin, an associate professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, who is board-certified in behavior sleep medicine and practices CBT-I.
Personally, I’m glad I started with an online program. I have a pretty busy schedule, so it would be tricky squeezing in a weekly appointment with a therapist. Of course, if they had an opening at four in the morning, I could swing it.
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