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Think Yourself To Sleep! - By Chris Gearing

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Thinking Yourself To Sleep

September 10, 2009

Dr. Sylvia Gearing, TXA 21 News

Insomnia strikes 30% of Americans according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and this trend has only worsened during these challenging economic times. Millions of us have turned to prescription sleep aides but a new study from the Mayo Clinic now reports that improving your attitudes about sleep may be the real key to getting that elusive good night’s sleep.

Most of my sleepless patients begin by asking me why it is so difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Here are the facts:

  • A Lot on Our Minds: Stress is the number one cause of short term sleeping difficulties and the number of people struggling with sleep has doubled since 2001. Forty million Americans struggle with over seventy different types of sleep problems with insomnia being the most common. You cannot sleep if you have adrenaline coursing through your body while you worry about your job, your school, your kids or your money. Such chronic stress can even erode your immune system.
  • Sleepless Youth: Insomnia is not confined to the middle aged or the elderly anymore. The use of prescription sleep medications by the 18 to 24 year old crowd has nearly tripled since 1999. Access to Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and texting keep us plugged in and sleepless.
  • Insomnia is Progressive: Sleep problems are progressive disorders. Unaddressed, short-term insomnia becomes long term, chronic insomnia. We begin to think that we cannot sleep and adopt attitudes that make it more difficult to sleep. We create an entire personal “culture” around why we cannot sleep.

Now that all sounds pretty bad, but it gets worse when we look at how sleeplessness actually affects its victims.

  • Thinking Less Effective: A weary mind cannot process the emotions of today and sleep deprived people overreact, snap at others and fail to concentrate and follow through. We end up with muddled minds and compromised careers.
  • Psychomotor Reactions are Compromised: We are simply clumsier when we are tired. Chronic insomniacs have four times the incident of car accidents. This phenomenon costs the U.S. up to $100 million a year in indirect costs. Falling asleep at the wheel causes half of all fatal accidents.
  • Increased Substance Abuse: People with sleep problems have 2.4 times more alcoholism than average. If they can’t sleep, many people turn to substances like alcohol and drugs to relax. This is dangerous especially since tolerance develops and we use more alcohol to get the same effect.
  • Sleepless and Blue: Insomnia does precede depression in most cases, and studies have shown that if you deprive a normal person of just two hours a night for five nights that they will begin to show symptoms of depression. Up to 90% of depressed patients have insomnia, and insomniacs have 35 times the rate of depression when compared to good sleepers.

The good news is that you can improve your sleeping habits by simply changing how you think!

When insomnia develops, it is often because of temporary circumstances that cause transient sleeplessness. We begin to believe we cannot sleep on our own and with $300 million spent on marketing last year by the top makers of sleep medications, we are often persuaded to take a pill. Unfortunately, experts are now reporting that medication may be more like a band-aid. The crisis may pass but our underlying attitudes and habits have shifted and are never addressed.

Are you ready to take the first step? Here’s what you should do:

Filling our minds with catastrophic outcomes keeps us up at night. The antidote, other than sleeping pills, is to focus on shifting your thinking from stressed to more logical, realistic thinking that is calming. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) helps you to control or eliminate worrisome thoughts about current stresses and about sleep issues. Remember that 70 to 80% of people with chronic insomnia seem to benefit significantly from CBT. It is natural, reasonably priced and lasting.

Here is an example of CBT steps:

  • Step One: Catastrophic Beliefs. Think of a current stressor that is troubling you. List the future-threat catastrophic thoughts that were produced by this adverse situation, and then record all the thoughts and emotions that you experienced. These catastrophic beliefs often “chain together”, meaning that one catastrophic belief will provoke and flow into another catastrophic belief. The downward spiral is difficult to escape.
  • Step Two: How Likely Are Your Fears? Most of us worry about what bad outcomes could occur without any concern about likelihood. The key to ending your catastrophizing is to break free of the future-threat beliefs. The best way to do that is to emphasize what you do know as fact. Usually, the only solid fact in the catastrophizing chain is the original adverse event that started it. The rest is guesswork and supposition. Use that fact to estimate the probabilities of your worst-case fears. Just how likely is it that all of the awful events in your negative chain actually will happen? Try to estimate a numerical probability of the likelihood that each event in the chain will occur. Is it 75%? Is it 50%? Is it one in a million?
  • Step Three: Best-Case Beliefs. Generate a best-case alternative for each of your worst-case outcomes. This forces you to escape your worst-case scenario thinking, at least temporarily. You are now beginning to think logically and to solve the problem. Suddenly, when you take a break from catastrophic thinking, you will be better able to create the positive outcomes because you’re not dwelling exclusively on the catastrophic outcomes.
  • Step Four: Focus on Realistic Outcomes. Often, your identification of the most likely outcomes will be negative, since your mind is already thinking negatively. When you focus on the more realistic probabilities of bad things happening (1 in 10 million), and then compare those probabilities to the odds of good outcomes occurring (such as 50% to 70%), your thinking and mood will automatically shift to the positive. Avoid catastrophic thinking by filling your mind with realistic, positive outcomes with a high probability of occurring. You will then be ready to tackle the problem creatively and forcefully.
  • Step Five: Pro-Active Solutions. Now it is time to generate the realistic action steps you can take to remediate the problem. Relax, breath deeply and begin to focus on concrete actions that are reasonably implemented to solve the problem. Implement as soon as possible. Remain calm. Again, stay away from catastrophic thinking since it is just a distraction from solving the problem and is a complete waste of your mental energy. The positive solution is at hand. You just need to problem solve to generate it.


“Cost Effective Ways to Fight Insomnia” in the June 6th, 2009 New York Times

“Get A Great Night’s Sleep Every Night” from Good Housekeeping

American Academy of Sleep Medicine

“Insomnia Treatment: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy instead of Sleeping Pills” from

“Suffer From Insomnia? Try Cognitive Behavioral Therapy” from U.S. News and World Report

“The Resilience Factor” by Karen Reivich, Ph.D. and Andrew Shattle, Ph.D.

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