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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Sleep Disorders

Insomnia, sleep apnea, circadian rhythm sleep disorders, restless legs syndrome, and narcolepsy. These are just a few of the many sleep disorders that affect millions of people worldwide and these affect their ability to enjoy sufficient hours of sleep nearly every night, if not every night. People who have sleep disorders are more likely to suffer from the adverse effects of prolonged sleep deprivation, from feeling exhausted, drowsy and grumpy during the day to increased risk of heart attack, strokes, and diabetes.

Do these things sound familiar to you even as you lay sleepless on your Serta bed? If it does, you may be one among millions who are strongly tempted to take one or more of either a prescription sleeping pill or an over-the-counter sleeping aid. No judgment here since you are justified in doing so but perhaps you should consider an alternative treatment – cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT’s Numerous Benefits

While sleep medication has its merits, it will neither address the underlying symptoms nor treat the problem. In fact, sleep medication can make your sleeping issues worse with long-term use, especially when you’re at high risk for developing tolerance and dependence on medications.

Again, this isn’t to say that sleep medication is bad per se but it should be used as sparingly as possible and for short periods only, such as during post-surgery recovery or for jet lag from traveling across time zones. Even if you’re using sleep medication, your doctor will still recommend therapy and healthy lifestyle habits.

And speaking of therapy, CBT has numerous positive effects on the management of your symptoms and, thus, in your enjoyment of quality sleep.

  • Changing your way or line of thinking that prevents you from falling and staying asleep through the night
  • Changing your bedtime behavior
  • Changing lifestyle habits that may have an impact on your sleep quality, behavior and pattern

CBT is also useful in addressing the underlying issues of a sleep disorder instead of just the symptoms. For example, insomnia can be caused by stress, anxiety or depression, which affects your way of thinking and your sleeping pattern. Your unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as the consumption of cigarettes, coffee or alcohol an hour before your bedtime, can also be changed with therapy.

Unlike the use of sleep medication, furthermore, CBT doesn’t have negative side effects on your body. In fact, you will likely find that it’s useful in relaxing your mind, changing your outlook in life, and improving your daytime habits, all of which are instrumental in your ability to fall and stay asleep.  Plus, you don’t have to deal with the side effects of drugs since there are none used in CBT.

CBT’s Multiple Approaches

Of course, the effectiveness of CBT as an adjunct treatment for your sleep disorder partly rests on your willingness to be an active participant in the process. Your therapist can only do his job if and when you do yours, and it starts with being actively engaged from day one.

There are two parts in CBT, namely:

  • Cognitive therapy wherein you learn to recognize and change your negative thoughts, beliefs and ideas that contribute to your sleeping issues; and
  • Behavioral therapy wherein you learn avoidance of behaviors that keeps you awake when you should be asleep, as well as where you learn to replace bad habits with better ones.

There are several techniques used in CBT, too. You and your therapist will discuss which of these techniques will work best in your case. You have to keep in mind that your therapist will recommend several techniques and you have to keep an open mind about them.

  • A sleep diary can be used in pinpointing the issues that affect your sleeping pattern. Be as detailed as possible in your diary since your therapist will use it for further treatments.
  • Cognitive restructuring, also known as thought challenging, involves challenging your negative patterns of thinking and replacing them with positive thoughts. By changing how you think, you can change how you feel and, eventually, change how you sleep.
  • Sleep restriction therapy decreases the number of hours you spend lying awake mainly through sleep deprivation. You will, for example, be asked to skip your mid-afternoon naps and stay up beyond your normal bedtime so that you will be more tired tomorrow night. You will be more likely to associate your bed with sleep in this manner; it’s a technique most useful in insomnia.

Of course, you will be taught about the effective ways of going to sleep faster, especially in terms of your sleep hygiene and sleep environment. Your sleep environment, for example, has to be quiet, cool and dark while your bed has to be comfortable. You may have to use a white noise machine, blackout shades, and earplugs, among other tools, for this purpose.

CBT may be conducted as one-on-one therapy sessions or as group sessions; many are also choosing online sessions. But remember that your own CBT program should be tailored to your specific needs including your type of sleep disorder and its symptoms and severity.

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