Cognitive Therapy and Sleeplessness

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It appears that “as the world turns” many are having a difficult time falling asleep and/or staying asleep. Our fast-paced lifestyle can leave one feeling fatigued, apathetic and restless as a result of a cycle of sleep deprivation. Some turn to sleep medications as a way of rectifying the problem of insomnia. Others look for naturopathic remedies to provide respite from a sleepless night.

Certain chronic insomniac conditions that result from pain-related problems may warrant the use of sedating medications. Other cases, however, may respond to various non-medicinal treatments, including the use of cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy is at the forefront of treatment for various disorders, including depression, anxiety, pain management issues and insomnia. Insomnia may be caused by life stressors, physical illness, emotional discomfort, environmental factors, self-medicating or disruption in one’s sleep pattern due to work-shift changes or jet lag.

CBT seeks to work with insomniacs through their thought processes, ways of viewing the world and underlying beliefs about sleep. Many adults become anxious about their lack of sleep. They may ruminate about the horrible things that they believe will happen to them if they fail to promptly fall asleep. I often tell patients, “Where is the evidence that not sleeping tonight will cause you undue harm? What’s the worst thing that will happen?” Frequently, it is the anxiousness about not sleeping that sets up a self-defeating dynamic of frustration and restlessness.

CBT uses paradoxical intervention strategies for dealing with sleeplessness. I recommend that patients who experience insomnia stay awake as long as possible prior to going to bed. Individuals should be sufficiently fatigued and drowsy before lying down. The bed should always be used for sleep purposes and never used for reading, relaxing or ruminating. If the patient’s sleep is interrupted, the sufferer should get out of bed and read, watch television, until sufficiently tired enough to resume sleep.

Often, people do not realize that the human body will automatically self-regulate. If one only gets three hours of sleep on a given night, the body will automatically compensate, eventually providing appropriate rest. It is the fear of not sleeping that sets up a negative dynamic for the insomniac. Individuals may set up a self-defeating cycle by remaining in bed as they ruminate about sleeplessness. Ironically, this process only compounds the problem by leading to further restlessness.

Learning to relax the body and mind is important to getting quality sleep. Learning mindfulness meditation helps the insomniac to calm the sympathetic nervous system, setting the stage for restful sleep.

What people do with their time prior to going to sleep is important. Playing stimulating music, working at the computer and using alcohol will negatively affect one’s ability to sleep. Learning to let go of work-related stressors is imperative. Individuals who are “pusher-drivers” are more likely to carry their workday into the night.

Patients, who experience insomnia, generally suffer from the following self-defeating thoughts and assumptions:

  • “If I don’t sleep, something awful will happen to me.”
  • “I must sleep or else I won’t be able to function anymore.”
  • “I’m afraid to go to sleep because something might happen to me.”
  • “If I don’t fall asleep promptly, there must be a problem.”
  • “I have so much work to do that I don’t have time to sleep.”
  • “I must stay in bed until I fall asleep.”
  • “Worrying about things helps me to control my life.”
  • “I must complete everything on my list, especially work tasks.”
  • “Being alone at night is a scary thing.”

Assisting patients to reframe negative thinking is essential to treatment for insomnia. Anticipatory anxiety in the form of negative self-statements must be replaced with more adaptive ways of thinking about sleep. By employing strategies that emphasize the “reverse-effort” of not trying to fall asleep, patients learn to relax their bodies through passive volition and secure needed rest.

James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S., LPC, CCBT is an educator, writer, licensed professional counselor and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. He specializes in treating anxiety and depressive disorders. He served as a teacher and guidance counselor for 30 years and has taught graduate-level counselor education courses for Chapman University. In 2005, he self-published Stepping Out of the Bubble: Reflections on the Pilgrimage of Counseling Therapy (Booklocker.com). His latest book, Troubled Childhood, Triumphant Life: healing from the Battle Scars of Youth (New Horizon Press) is about the impact of troubled childhoods on adult functioning. James lives and is a practicing counselor in Scottsdale, Arizona.

James P. Krehbiel, Ed.S, LPC, is an author, freelance writer, and nationally certified cognitive-behavioral therapist practicing in Scottsdale, Arizona. James is the featured Shrink Rap columnist for TheImproper.com, an upscale arts, entertainment and lifestyle web magazine. He has contracted with New Horizon Press to publish his latest work entitled, Troubled Childhood, Triumphant Life. This book is about the impact of “unavailable” parenting on adults and the people they become. His book will be available March 1, 2010 but now can be pre-ordered through Amazon.com. James can be reached at http://leavingthebubble.blogspot.com/.

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