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Therapy Instead of Sleep Meds for Insomnia

Therapy Instead of Sleep Meds for InsomniaNot getting enough sleep? Canadian researchers say taking a sleeping pill or drinking alcohol is not the best approach for addressing insomnia — and may be making it worse.

“Poor sleepers who engage in what we call ‘safety behaviors’, such as taking sleep medication or drinking alcohol, are actually disrupting their sleep in the long term,” said Heather Hood, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Ryerson University .

“These safety behaviors are driven by unhelpful beliefs about sleep, but people suffering from insomnia or poor sleep feel they need to do these things to help them fall asleep.”

Ten to 15 per cent of the general population suffer from clinical levels of insomnia.

Hood conducted previous research on the connection between anxiety disorders and safety behavior and was curious to see if there was a connection with insomnia as well.

In the present study, researchers asked 397 undergraduate students to complete an online survey that asked about their safety behaviors (routines they did to avoid being awake at night), how often they completed these nightly rituals and how much they believe they needed to complete these tasks to sleep.

The student participants were also asked the degree to which they were afraid of not getting enough sleep and the extent to which they tried to avoid feeling tired.

The researchers found that 40 per cent of the students were poor sleepers and may be using safety behaviors that were not helping them.

“These students not only relied on these safety behaviors to help them, but truly believed that these routines were helping them sleep better at night. But their strong beliefs in these behaviors were actually leading to more sleeping problems for them,” said Hood.

“A poor sleeper or someone with insomnia may have many reasons for needing to do these things to help them sleep, but our study is questioning their beliefs if they are really helpful.”

The study found poor sleepers felt they needed to rely on a certain task to help them sleep. With students who had no difficulty falling asleep, they often didn’t think of anything – they just fell asleep.

“People who are poor sleepers exert a ton of energy trying to force sleep,” said psychologist Dr. Colleen Carney, study co-author. “Sleep is something that has to unfold naturally, so the more you engage in behaviors to try to sleep, the less likely you’re going to fall asleep.”

Carney, who is also a sleep disorder therapist, said cognitive behavior therapy is a more effective, long-term solution for sleep sufferers. In cognitive behavior therapy, individuals are taught to give up that fight, and work with their physiology to help them learn how to fall asleep naturally.

“Cognitive behavior therapy is the front-line recommended therapy for chronic insomnia. It teaches you to adopt the habits of a good sleeper by changing your sleep habits and having a more relaxed attitude towards getting a good night’s rest.”

Their study will be published in the December issue of Behavior Therapy.

Source: Ryerson University

Therapy photo by shutterstock.

Therapy Instead of Sleep Meds for Insomnia

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2018). Therapy Instead of Sleep Meds for Insomnia. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 23, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 1 Dec 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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