Five Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques to Sleep Better

woman sleeping
July 27, 2015
Leigh Erin Connealy, M.D.

How awake are you?

Odds are, you feel sleepy. At least some of the time. Maybe even now.

According to one study, 48% of the population suffers from occasional insomnia, while 22% have problems (nearly) every night. But that’s only among those who actually take the time to report their sleep woes to a doctor.

Between work, stress, travel, and all the trappings of the modern world, we belong to a generation that’s constantly short of rest.

By my estimation, four out of every five patients I see doesn’t get enough sleep.

Sleepiness may seem like a nuisance. But the truth is, it’s much more than that.

Lack of sleep is a genuine health hazard.

A tired body doesn’t function properly. Not just the mind—which can feel hazy. But all of your other systems as well.

Your digestive tract isn’t as efficient. Your liver and kidneys grow sluggish, and toxins build up.

And your immune system breaks down, allowing all sorts of invaders access to your body.

And those are just the most obvious problems.

Are you gaining weight, or finding it hard to lose some? Lack of sleep may be the issue.

Are you pre-diabetic? Your sleep patterns may be a contributing factor.

Is your blood pressure stubbornly high? Without proper sleep at night, your cardiovascular system never gets to descend to a dormant state for rest and healing.

That means, believe it or not, that poor sleep can lead to heart disease.

Not to mention a whole host of other maladies—from moodiness, to forgetfulness, to an increased prevalence of accidents.

Lack of sleep may not be the most dangerous health problem we face. But it certainly is the most underreported, considering how wide-reaching its impact, and how little the true dangers are told.

That’s why, today, I’m not just highlighting the importance of sleep. I’m also going to give you the five most important things you can do to improve your rest each night.

Avoid Pills Through Sleep Hygiene

Many doctors, when confronted with insomnia or any other sleep disorder, will prescribe pills.

In almost every case, that’s a horrible idea.

First, the pills come with all sorts of side effects. Some of them directly counter the good that comes from sleeping. That’s a lot of work (and expense) to end up in the same predicament.

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Second, pills don’t lead to truly restful sleep. Rather, they’re closer to the effects of alcohol.

Yes, they may knock you out. But your rest is poor, you don’t get enough deep REM sleep, and consequently it’s common to wake up in as great a haze as if you hadn’t slept at all.

But most importantly, pills are usually unnecessary. Unless you have a true chemical imbalance, you can get much better rest each night through a few simple changes using a technique called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy—or CBT for short.

And a new study in the Annals of Internal Medicine just declared CBT as effective—if not more effective—than sleeping pills.

Here are five techniques to borrow from CBT if you’re having trouble dozing off at night.

Avoid screens

Blue screens—like those in our computers, smartphones, and TVs—signal daytime to the body. They ramp up neurotransmitters that increase alertness, and decrease those that encourage sleepiness.

In short, those blue screens are like blaring horns in your brain, telling it to wake up.

Add in the generally stimulating subject matter we observe on our screens, and it’s easy to see why watching videos before bed contributes to restlessness.

For the next week, try putting down all screens at least a half hour before you go to sleep. Odds are very good you’ll feel an immediate difference.

Beds are for sleeping

Treat your bed like what it is—a place to sleep.

Don’t use it for anything else. Don’t read in bed. Don’t talk on the phone.

Basically, you want to use your natural Pavlovian responses to your advantage. If you sleep every time you get in bed, then getting in bed will start making you sleepy, no matter how you feel beforehand. This is a very powerful tool for falling asleep quickly.

Establish a routine

Similar to the above, you want to teach your body to get tired at certain times.

Of course, it’s not always possible to the stick to a strict schedule. But the closer you can get, the better off you’ll be. Your body is on natural 24-hour clocks. If you teach yourself that 10 o’clock means sleep every day, you’ll naturally become drowsy at 10 o’clock.

Try melatonin

If you’re having trouble getting to sleep each night—even using the above methods—melatonin is a natural neurotransmitter that helps your body fall asleep. But your body’s natural production of melatonin starts to drop off after the age of 50 or so…so supplementing can be very helpful.

Natural melatonin supplements can gently help your body drift off. Think of them like natural sleeping pills—but without all the ill side effects. You’re just giving the body what it should be producing at bedtime anyway.

Take a salt bath

Epsom salt is a bit of a wonder drug. The magnesium it contains influences over 400 chemical reactions in the body—and one of those is to encourage sleep.

It also helps calm the nervous system. Calming oils and teas can have a similar effect, but for most people, an Epsom salt bath is the most potent. Try one right before you’re ready to turn in, and you should feel the difference immediately.

Any one of these techniques should help you or a loved one defeat insomnia, or any other problems getting to sleep. Taken together, they are a very potent elixir.

But if your sleep problems still persist, see a sleep therapist. There are a number of other CBT techniques, and it should be possible to find one that fits you.

In some extreme cases, sleeping pills may be necessary. But these cases are extremely rare, and a symptom of much deeper chemical imbalances. Pharmaceutical pills should be the last resort—not the first resort of everyone who suffers from lack of sleep.

Use these five CBT techniques first. Use others as warranted. And the odds are very good you’ll not only improve your sleep. You’ll improve all aspects of your health as well.

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