If you’re tackling
insomnia — with or without a doctor’s help — and still aren’t sleeping,
there are many alternative behavioral treatments to try. Insomnia is deeply personal
and it may take some exploration to find what works for you. Many behavioral approaches
to insomnia (including cognitive behavioral
therapy, sleep restriction therapy,
light therapy and acupuncture)
are best implemented under the guidance of a trained sleep clinician or therapist.
For most people, these methods aren’t time-consuming or costly, and they’re much
better for your long-term health than any prescription sleep medication.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Changing your attitude about sleeping may be the best way to develop long-term,
positive sleeping patterns. With CBT, a therapist or practitioner helps the patient
identify and correct distorted or maladaptive beliefs. One premise of cognitive
therapy holds that merely thinking about sleeplessness and the problems it causes
leads to ongoing insomnia,
the proverbial vicious cycle.
CBT can teach a person how to develop a more positive outlook on sleep, while simultaneously
encouraging better behaviors that are more conducive to having restful sleep. This
good “sleep hygiene” includes turning off the TV well before bedtime, and only using
your bed for sleeping or sex.
Many clinicians may think that behavioral therapy is cumbersome and for them, compared
to writing a prescription, it is. However, studies show that it works well. In a
comprehensive review of 37 insomnia treatment studies on over 2000 people, behavioral
approaches such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and relaxation training were
much more successful than medication, for both
primary insomnia and
secondary insomnia. In fact, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine
practice guidelines suggest using behavioral therapy as first-line treatment for
To learn more about CBT or to find a trained therapist, visit National Association of Cognitive Behavioral Therapists
or the American Institute
for Cognitive Therapy.
Sleep Restriction Therapy (SRT)
With sleep restriction therapy (SRT), the goal is to find your body’s ideal threshold
for sleep — whether it’s five hours or nine hours. SRT also aims to reduce the amount
of time you spend lying in bed trying to drop off. Sleep experts think this makes
insomnia even worse. The idea is to gradually adjust your sleeping time until you
reach your personal sleep threshold, and eventually, feel well rested every morning.
In one form of SRT, you don’t allow yourself sleep for at least 24 hours or until
your body is begging for a snooze. Once you get to sleep, you make yourself get
up sooner than you’d like, day after day, until exhaustion sets in at night and
you fall asleep easily and rest soundly.
In another variation of SRT, you might keep a sleep log for a couple of weeks and
a sleep clinician estimates your “sleep efficiency” or the time you spent asleep
divided by the time you spent in bed. Then you’re given a prescription for a certain
number of hours to spend in bed, while continuing to monitor your sleep efficiency.
After that, the prescribed time in bed is extended or decreased by quarter-hour
intervals until you reach maximal sleep efficiency.
Though these methods may seem severe, life without sleep is even more troublesome.
If SRT sounds interesting to you, consider asking your healthcare practitioner for
a referral to a sleep lab to find a treatment course designed for your particular
Light therapy, or phototherapy, works to
improve sleep by exposing patients to specific wavelengths of light for
a set amount of time. It has been used for seasonal affective disorder, depression,
sleep disorders and even skin issues.
Melatonin, the key sleep hormone involved in circadian rhythm, is affected
With abnormal light exposure (ex. working the night shift), or changes in seasons,
the release of melatonin can be delayed, which can then delay the onset of sleep.
Using light therapy in the morning can help reset your internal clock to promote
the appropriate release of melatonin and, subsequently, sleep itself.
This type of therapy may work for you because light has a dramatic effect on our
circadian rhythm. Exposure to visible, direct intense light or sunlight before trying
to go to sleep can make your body think it should stay awake. Alternately, sunlight
streaming through the window in the morning signals your brain that it’s time to
wake up. Even a very small amount of light in the middle of the night is likely
to alter your circadian clock.
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation helps with certain forms of pain, high blood pressure
and insomnia, based on the theory that relaxing the body will relax the mind. Starting
from the outer extremities and progressively moving toward the face, you purposely
and alternately tense and relax muscle groups one at a time to reach a state of
You can practice tensing and relaxing the muscles one area at a time to recognize
how each sensation feels. Try it when you lie down to go to sleep, and you may be
able to bring your muscles to rest while your overwrought mind drifts off.
Directed imagery is a mind-body technique that aims to restore your sense of power
and control. When you feel out of control in daily life you may also feel that way
when it comes to getting to sleep. When many people lie down to sleep, they end
up thinking about stressful events that occurred during the day. Worrying about
these problems in bed can make you feel as if you have even less power over them
than when you’re awake.
With directed imagery, you perform a specific mental task that can be solved easily
prior to or at bedtime. The completion of the task helps you feel more in control
and can distract you enough to allow you to fall asleep. Directed imagery can be
an emotionally satisfying treatment for people with insomnia that seems to be caused
by lots of anxiety. You can learn more about
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) and acupuncture
Many times sleeplessness can stem from emotional turmoil, which blocks energy flow
over time. Both EFT and acupuncture are used to treat insomnia by acting on pressure
points to unblock energy channels in the body and restore positive energy flow.
Acupuncture uses thin needles to open energy lines, while EFT can be done with your
fingers. These techniques can reduce anxiety and help you sleep by opening your
Meditating can help rid your mind of the events that took place during your day
and clear your head for sleep. You can practice meditation anywhere, though when
you’re learning, it helps to be in a quiet environment. By quieting the nervous
system, Transcendental Meditation has shown positive results in treating insomnia.
And those who meditate get more quality sleep and feel more alert during the day.
To help with sleep, meditation can be practiced while sitting comfortably for 15–20
minutes, two times per day in a quiet place. Beginners can practice focusing the
mind on their breathing. When thoughts enter your head and start to distract you—
which they will — acknowledge them and move your focus back to the in-and-out of
your breathing. When performed in bed, even a few minutes of this process can have
dramatic effects on your ability to fall asleep.
Writing it out
Keeping a journal can help you get at the root of insomnia as well. Set a time every
day to write down whatever comes into your mind, without worrying about complete
sentences or making sense. This stream-of-consciousness writing can help access
emotional or psychological issues buried beneath the surface.
Journaling can help you process and resolve these issues by literally taking them
from your mind to the piece of paper. Meditative writing helps clear the mental
clutter in your brain and can be very revealing.
Help yourself get back to sleep naturally
All of the above methods can help resolve your insomnia, no matter how entrenched
it may seem. You do have to be open to trying something different, but the reward
of a good night’s sleep will be worth it. For alternative natural supplement options
for sleep, see our article
Nature’s sleeping aids.
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and behavioral treatment of insomnia: An update. An American Academy of Sleep Medicine
report. Sleep, 29 (11), 1415–1419.
Sivertsen, B., et al. 2006. Cognitive behavioral therapy vs. zopiclone
for treatment of chronic primary insomnia in older adults. JAMA, 295, 2851–2858.
Barclay, L., & Lie, D. 2006. Cognitive behavioral therapy better
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(accessed 12.27.2006. Free access with registration).
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3 Wikipedia. 2007. Light therapy. URL: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light_therapy
4 Raloff, Janet. 2006. Light impacts: Hue and timing determine whether
rays are beneficial or detrimental. Science news online, 169 (21), 330.
URL: http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20060527/bob9.asp (accessed 01.02.2007).
5 Stoppler, M., & Shiel, W. 2005. Progressive muscle relaxation for
stress and insomnia. MedicineNet. URL: http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/art.asp?articlekey=47281&page=1
6 Brooks, J., & Scarano, T. 1985. Transcendental Meditation in the
treatment of post-Vietnam adjustment. J. Counseling & Devt., 64,
Maharishi University of Managment. Decreased insomnia. URL: http://www.mum.edu/tm_research/h8.html
7 Holistic online. Alternative and integral therapies for insomnia. URL:
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