Could CBT Solve Your Sleep Problems?None By Diana Kelly Levey
When you experience those nights of tossing and turning, hoping your brain will “turn off” for good, you probably wish you had a magic wand that could help you fall asleep faster, right?
It might take longer than saying “abracadabra,” but learning cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) skills—even for as little as an hour—could set you up for better sleep. The latest findings on the impact of CBT on sleep come from a small study on male inmates published in the journal Behavioral Sleep Medicine. The researchers wanted to test how a one-shot session of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT-I) could help with mood and insomnia symptoms amongst prisoners with acute insomnia. In an incarceration setting, insomnia has been associated with aggression, anger, impulsivity, suicidality, and increased prison health care use. Receiving just one hour of a CBT-I session and a self-management pamphlet was effective in preventing the development of chronic insomnia in 73 percent of prisoners. After one month of the treatment, the prisoners also reported a reduction in anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as in their insomnia severity.
Granted, you probably don’t have the same sleep stressors and daily concerns that interfere with a prisoner’s sleep, but that doesn’t mean the average adult couldn’t benefit. CBT is a form of psychological treatment that has been demonstrated to be effective for a range of issues. It’s based on the principle that many psychological problems are partly based on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking, learned patterns, and/or unhelpful behavior, according to the American Psychological Association. This treatment targets perceptions and behaviors that cause and maintain a problem, and has been adapted to address many psychiatric disorders, including insomnia.
CBT-I is an effective treatment for insomnia that doesn’t involve pharmaceuticals. It’s a structured, short-term, skill-focused therapy that’s aimed at changing one’s thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that contribute to insomnia over the course of a few weeks. Often this is done with the help of a therapist or a digital program with goal-oriented sessions. A 2015 meta-analysis of 37 studies found that 36 percent of patients who received CBT-I were in remission from insomnia, compared with about 17 percent of those in control or comparison conditions.
If your sleep problems stem from thoughts and behaviors, this therapy may help you get the peace and rest your body needs. CBT-I has been shown to be as effective as medication for brief treatment, and is likely more durable and sustainable for people if they keep practicing it than medication alone. Here are sleep problems CBT-I has been shown to aid with:
You suffer from pain.
Whether you’ve been diagnosed with a chronic pain condition or experience general aches and pains (like back pain) that interfere with your ability to fall asleep, the sleep-pain cycle can be a vicious one. Pain interferes with your ability to fall or stay asleep, but then poor sleep can exacerbate pain the next day. Studies of patients with comorbid insomnia and chronic pain found that CBT-I can lead to clinically meaningful improvements in sleep symptoms. While that’s promising, the patients’ pain severity didn’t seem to improve, and study authors say more research is needed in this field.
You wake up and can’t fall back to sleep.
Whether you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep, or find yourself up earlier than farm animals in the morning and unable to return to sleep, they’re significant sleep problems—and ones that CBT-I may be able to help with. This form of therapy can help you think about your problems differently, so those worries that start racing through your brain as you wake up won’t keep you awake. You’ll also learn techniques to help you fall back to sleep. Happify’s “Get the Best Sleep of Your Life” track teaches you sleep hygiene and relaxation techniques that can help you sleep better.
You have anxiety.
If you find that climbing into bed results in all of your worries flooding into your brain, the act of going to sleep could be intrinsically anxiety-inducing. Some studies have shown that Internet-delivered CBT could provide care for patients with anxiety who may not otherwise get treatment because of physical conditions, psychiatric conditions, or the social stigma of going to a therapist. Following a CBT-I program can help you practice relaxation techniques while you’re in bed (reducing the time you spend in bed so that you’re only there when you’re sleepy), and teach you tips to help you let go of worries, according to the Mayo Clinic.
You have sleep apnea.
If you’re amongst the nearly one billion people worldwide (936 million) estimated to have sleep apnea (the majority of them are undiagnosed), the quantity and quality of your sleep impacts your whole health. Besides experiencing mood fluctuations and fatigue, sleep apnea impacts brain health, from cellular repair to defects in learning and memory, as well as causing increased anxiety and stress. Using CBT-I with CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) therapy can improve mental cognitive functions, according to research.
Want to get the best sleep of your life? Of course you do! Check out our 4-week track by Dr. Jared Minkel to reach that goal and build healthy habits for better sleep.
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