I’ve recently completed two posts on assessing sleep problems in people experiencing persistent pain, and today I turn my attention to strategies for managing sleep problems – without medication. Why without medication? Because to date there are no medications for insomnia that don’t require a ‘weaning off’ period, during which time people often find their original sleep problems emerge once again… I’m not completely against medications for sleep or pain – but I think they need to be used with care and full disclosure about the effects, side-effects, and the need to eventually withdraw from them.
The approach I’m advocating is a modified form of cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBTi). CBTi is a form of treatment that is now considered to be first line therapy by both the British Association for Psychopharmacology (Wilson, Nutt, Alford, Argyropoulos, Baldwin, Bateson et al, 2010), and the American College of Physicians (Qaseem, Kansagara, Forciea, Cooke, Denberg et al, 2016). It includes sleep hygiene, cognitive therapy for the thoughts and beliefs associated with sleep, and sleep restriction for those who clinically need it. The modified version I advocate is based on Dr Guy Meadows ACT-based approach and I’ll cover that next week, but I’ll describe the classical CBT approach first.
The basic idea behind a CBT approach to insomnia is that although the initiating event may be out of our control, it’s unlikely to be maintaining the problem – and the factors maintaining the problem are typically the habits people have, and the thoughts and beliefs about their sleep problem.
Sleep is a behaviour that is infinitely malleable, as anyone who has travelled far enough on long-haul flights will know (and parents of small babies as well!). There are cues we use to decide when we should head to bed, and how long we should stay asleep. Bodies in turn respond to these cues and modify automatic processes such as digestion, urine production, and body temperature to ensure we stay asleep for as long as needed. When those cues change – for example, we’re in a new time zone when it’s light at the “wrong” time, and we’re hungry at the “wrong” time, we have trouble staying asleep until the body adjusts. Some people say we can manage a two-hour time zone shift every 24 hours, but in some sensitive people even a one-hour daylight savings change can upset the apple-cart!
If sleep is a habitual behaviour, then we can manipulate the cues to our benefit when sleep is elusive. We learn to associate things like the routine we follow prior to going to bed, light in the room, the “winding down” process we use, and even the timing of our snacks and drinks as a way to signal to the body/mind that we’re sleepy/tired.
There are three basic steps in CBTi: stimulus control (aka sleep hygiene), cognitive therapy, and sleep restriction – with the usual relapse prevention steps an essential part as well.
Sleep hygiene (stimulus control)
The basis of sleep hygiene is to control the stimuli associated with going to sleep so that we clearly indicate to the body/mind that it’s time to get to sleep. That means some basic “rules” around what we do in the time preceding getting into bed, and what we do when in bed trying to sleep.
The golden rule is that the bed is for sleep and sex – not for worrying in, not for watching TV or using the computer or phone or tablet, not for arguing in, not for talking on the phone. If you’re awake in bed for longer than 20 minutes, it’s time to get out of bed until you’re sleepy/tired (more on this in a moment), keeping the lights down low, doing something tedious or boring, then returning to bed to actually sleep.
Simple, commonsense things like keeping the room dark and warm, blocking out the worst of the noise, NOT using a TV or radio or any other noise-making device to go to sleep, ensuring caffeine intake is limited, having a regular bedtime and wake-up time, not taking naps through the day and timing when exercise and relaxation are undertaken are all part of sleep hygiene and most of us are aware of these steps. If they’re not familiar to you, this site is a good one – click.
The cognitive therapy part is about managing the thoughts and attitudes that can exacerbate the sleep problem – things like having a busy mind, worrying about not being able to sleep, believing that it’s crucial to have a certain number of hours of sleep or the next day will be awful, getting that sinking dread as bedtime approaches, following any number of almost (and sometimes actual) obsessive rituals to achieve sleep – and so on…
As usual, with any conventional CBT, dealing with these thoughts involves firstly reality testing – Is it true that you must have a certain number of hours of sleep or the next day will inevitably be terrible? Must the room be absolutely silent or sleep will elude you? Then challenging or disputing those thoughts – “It’s possible I’ll feel tired tomorrow, but I can still function even if I’m not at my best”, “It might take me longer to fall asleep but I’ll get to sleep even though I can hear a clock ticking”.
These simple approaches are reasonably easy to implement – and they are effective. But if sleep is still a problem, and the person isn’t getting more than 4 hours sleep a night, it’s time to bring in the big guns.
There are two parts of altering sleep habits that are particularly challenging: getting out of bed after 20 minutes of being awake (especially in the wee hours of the morning!); and using sleep restriction. Neither are easy, yet both are effective.
The idea behind sleep restriction is to reduce the amount of time being in bed while not actually being asleep. Simple huh? So that period from when you first hop into bed and until you actually fall asleep is called sleep latency – and the longer your sleep latency, the less sleep you actually get. You become inefficient at sleeping, and worst, your body/mind learns that it’s OK to be in bed wide awake, and as I mentioned earlier, people begin to associate even going into the bedroom as a negative thing which revs up the autonomic nervous system making it even more difficult to fall asleep.
The nuts and bolts are to work out what time you actually fall asleep, and only go to bed at that time. So if you stay awake until 2.00 or 3.00am, you only go to bed at 2.00am. And you keep your morning wake-up time the same as normal. Yes, this means you end up being only able to sleep for the time between 2.00am and 7.00am! Ouch!
The idea is to extinguish the “habit” of being awake while in bed, reducing the association between being in bed and wide awake, while getting you absolutely tired and sleepy that you fall asleep into a deep sleep quickly. Once this falling asleep part happens regularly (usually for a week or so) then it’s possible to begin a very gradual process of bringing the bedtime back to a more reasonable hour – I usually suggest 15 minute increments, returning to the previous step if falling asleep begins to be difficult.
The process is reasonably difficult – not because it’s hard to stay awake (after all, the person has been practicing it for some time!) but because of the mind chatter. It’s truly tough when your mind starts having a go at you, suggesting you can’t sleep, or you’ll be so incredibly tired you won’t cope, or you’ll be cranky and that it’s dangerous and how on earth will you go at work without any sleep? And this is where having access to a really good clinician can be helpful, although there are apps that provide a pretty good alternative if a human isn’t available.
For a detailed examination of the literature on sleep restriction therapy, Kyle, Aquino, Miller, Henry, Crawford, Espie & Spielman (2015) provide a really good systematic analysis of how sleep restriction is employed in research trials. For a plain language version of CBTi, this is a good description – click
As I mentioned above, I’ll be going through a slightly different version of CBTi – an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach to insomnia that is also gaining popularity and an evidence base. Come right on back next week for that exciting episode!
Kyle, S. D., Aquino, M. R. J., Miller, C. B., Henry, A. L., Crawford, M. R., Espie, C. A., & Spielman, A. J. (2015). Towards standardisation and improved understanding of sleep restriction therapy for insomnia disorder: A systematic examination of cbt-i trial content. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 23, 83-88.
Manber, R., Simpson, N. S., & Bootzin, R. R. (2015). A step towards stepped care: Delivery of cbt-i with reduced clinician time. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 19, 3-5.
Qaseem, A., Kansagara, D., Forciea, M., Cooke, M., Denberg, T. D., & for the Clinical Guidelines Committee of the American College of, P. (2016). Management of chronic insomnia disorder in adults: A clinical practice guideline from the american college of physicians. Annals of Internal Medicine, 165(2), 125-133. doi:10.7326/M15-2175
Wilson, S., Nutt, D., Alford, C., Argyropoulos, S., Baldwin, D., Bateson, A., . . . Wade, A. (2010). British association for psychopharmacology consensus statement on evidence-based treatment of insomnia, parasomnias and circadian rhythm disorders. Journal of Psychopharmacology, 24(11), 1577-1601. doi:10.1177/0269881110379307