Once fear of sleeplessness moves into your bedroom, it can feel like a permanent feature of the night, making insomnia worse. But does it have to be this way? Therapy with a sleep specialist, or measures you can take on your own with instruction from a book or the web, can help set fears to rest.
Many insomnia sufferers have sleep-related attitudes that interfere with sleep. Beliefs like these—“My ability to sleep is out of my control,” or “When I sleep badly I can’t function the next day.”—can contribute to the development of anxiety about sleep.
“Cognitive restructuring” may help. It’s a part of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) for insomnia. As part of this program, a therapist tries to convince you that your catastrophic thinking is distorted, and persuade you to adopt a more realistic mindset. The claim is that changes in attitude—“I can control my sleep by adopting a better sleep schedule,” and “If I sleep badly one night, I’ll sleep better the next.”—can help to decrease sleep-related fears and improve sleep.
Sleep Restriction Therapy
Cognitive restructuring may be useful for some insomniacs, but I had better luck with sleep restriction, a therapy I blogged about on June 27 and July 1. The main goal of sleep restriction, another part of CBT, is to help insomniacs fall asleep more quickly and sleep through the night.
Sleep restriction helped me do just that. But it had another benefit as well: it helped me get rid of my fear of sleeplessness to a large extent. How? By functioning as an exposure therapy.
What Is Exposure Therapy?
Say you have a spider phobia. During exposure therapy, you might start by looking at a picture of a spider and eventually progress to sitting near a real spider outdoors. The goal would be to reduce your physiological response to spiders—the pounding heart, the urge to flee—and get more comfortable in places where spiders are likely to be.
Sleep restriction, which brought me face to face with my fear of sleeplessness, accomplished a similar thing. The first few nights were scary. It took every bit of resolve I had to stick to the program when my anxiety level was sky high.
But gradually things changed. As the nights went by, I found myself sleepier and sleepier at bedtime and began falling asleep within minutes of lying down. With improved sleep, I was less fatigued and my thoughts were clearer during the day. As bedtime approached, I began to expect that I would sleep. Within a few weeks, my fear of sleeplessness had all but faded away: an incredible boon for someone who lived with this fear off and on for years.
Occasionally my fear of sleeplessness will return in times of stress. When it does, it feels much more manageable. It’s not the demon it used to be.
My advice? If fear of sleeplessness is part of your problem, cognitive and behavioral therapies are worth checking out.
Do these therapies sound like they might help you?