5 Common Coping Behaviors That Actually Perpetuate Insomnia


Sleep problems don’t usually get triggered for no reason – they’re usually caused by an identifiable event or source, for example: work stress, going away to college, an injury, or a new baby. Similarly, sleep problems don’t usually stick around for no reason, either – that also has a cause. In other words, there are identifiable factors that perpetuate the sleep problems, and targeting these is an important part of getting your sleep back on track.

If you know a little bit about CBT-I, or if you’ve read my insomnia guide, you’ll know that this approach is part of a “behavioral” understanding of insomnia. Research shows that a behavioral treatment approach is extremely effective – in fact, more effective than medications in the long term – which is why CBT-I is widely recommended as the first line treatment for insomnia.

From my experience treating insomnia, here are the most common coping behaviors that clients have adopted in order to manage their sleep problems which actually further perpetuate the insomnia.

1. Getting into bed earlier.

The thinking goes like this, “If it’s taking me 1 to 2 hours to fall asleep, I should be getting into bed at least 1 to 2 hours earlier so I can get the same amount of sleep.” Seems to make sense. If you’re in bed, even if you’re not sleeping, at least you’re resting, right?

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Coffee, Insomnia and a Better Way

Intelligentsia Coffee - photo credit ofad.org

If you’re like me, having the morning cup of joe is a daily (and mandatory) ritual. We’re in good company, as more than 60% of Americans reportedly drink coffee every day, drinking an average of 3 cups daily.1 Caffeine is an effective stimulant, and the world’s most widely used drug. Most of the caffeine we consume comes from coffee, but it is also found in sodas, teas, energy drinks, pre-workout supplements, among others.

When I give classes about insomnia or meet with clients individually, I definitely do talk about caffeine and how it can exacerbate sleeping problems, and I usually do a quick assessment of how much caffeine the person is consuming on a regular basis. Caffeine has a relatively long half-life, (usually about 5-6 hours) which means that it takes your body a long time to metabolize the substance, and it stays active in your body. The general guidance regarding caffeine is to stop consuming caffeinated beverages around early afternoon, say 2-3pm, so that it is less likely to affect you around your bedtime. Of course, individuals have differing levels of sensitivity to caffeine, so you may need to experiment with adjusting that time earlier or later.

I rarely ever advise a client to cut out coffee altogether, and I am quick to point out that I am a huge fan of coffee (and sometimes I’ll admit to having entered what could be construed from the outside as ‘coffee snob’ territory over the years of brewing and consuming this beverage) and am in no way interested in taking away their right to enjoy a cup of medium-roast arabica. However, caffeine is obviously a stimulant and has a significant potential for being disruptive to sleep onset, depending on the quantity consumed and time – so it is important to be aware of the effects and consider making changes as necessary.

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Here’s Why Your Smartphone Should Stay Out of Your Bed


By now, you probably have already read somewhere or been told by someone that it’s not good to be using your phone in your bed. Perhaps you’ve even tried cutting back on your in-bed screen time, but haven’t noticed much difference or found it too hard. After all, your phone is your bedside alarm clock… as well as your ebook reader, and your anti-boredom device, and your social network portal, and your emergency communications system… It’s no wonder that people have such a difficult time unplugging from it, even in bed. So exactly how bad is it? And, do you really need to give it up?

“Blue” light is disruptive to sleep

There’s now wide scientific consensus that the type of light emitted from our digital devices (smartphones, tablets, computers, etc.) is particularly disruptive to our body’s regulation of sleep, and it has to do with light wavelengths and your circadian rhythm. Up until the advent of electricity, humans have relied on the sun’s schedule to sleep and rise, and we now know that our bodies are biologically attuned to sunlight to keep our circadian rhythms aligned with the earth’s day and night cycle. With the invention of electricity and artificial lighting, we have effectively been able to extend the daylight hours, causing disruption to the circadian rhythm.

In fact, research in recent years has found the exact mechanism that gets disrupted – the secretion of melatonin, a sleep-related hormone, gets suppressed with light exposure and causes the onset of sleepiness to become delayed. This effect is most pronounced for light with shorter wavelengths, which means light on the blue end of the spectrum. And that, it turns out, is exactly the type of light emitted by our digital devices: smartphones, tablets, laptops, TVs, and other LCD screens. Thus the brighter the screen and the closer to bedtime your use is, the more likely it is to disrupt your sleep that night as well as your circadian rhythm in the longer term.

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To Nap or Not to Nap, That is the Question (For Insomnia Sufferers)

Why are naps bad?

Sometimes, I’m asked by a client why they have to give up napping. Or if power-naps are okay. If you glance through any number of “sleep hygiene” guides, most will specifically recommend to avoid napping. So, why are naps bad for you?

Truthfully, there is nothing inherently wrong with napping. In fact, people have been doing it probably as long as human history. Many cultures throughout history have actually had naps built in to their schedule. “Siestas” are still common in Spain, Italy, Mexico, and a handful of other countries. Some tech-oriented companies actually encourage on-the-job napping to boost productivity. On a slightly less related note, before the invention of electricity and artificial lighting, people commonly slept in two separate periods of sleep throughout the night (biphasic sleep), with a period of wakefulness in between for socialization and other activities. My point is, there is no one “right way” when it comes to patterns of sleeping.

Naps and insomnia

The problem with napping for insomnia sufferers is mainly that it disrupts night-time sleep and perpetuates disrupted sleep.

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What is CBT-I?

CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia) is a behavioral treatment approach specifically developed for treating insomnia. It consists of several treatment components – based on cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)1 principles – that are commonly used together to treat insomnia. Because it is a multi-component approach, there isn’t one authoritative or manualized version of CBT-I; instead you’ll find different variations with slightly different emphases based on the researcher or the author of the protocol.

CBT-I is considered to be the most effective non-medication-based treatment for insomnia (and in fact has been shown by research studies to be more effective than medications in the long term) and is overwhelmingly recommended as the first line treatment for insomnia.2 CBT-I is the modality that I have been trained in and utilize at my clinic (day job) to treat clients with insomnia, with great efficacy. I created this primer for anyone who wanted to learn more about the specifics of CBT-I.

A brief history of CBT-I

As I mentioned earlier, CBT-I isn’t a single structured intervention created at one point in time, but one that is made up of multiple components and has had many contributors as it evolved over the years. Prior to the 1970’s, teaching relaxation techniques (including progressive muscle relaxation) was the primary behavioral/psychological tool for treating insomnia. In the early 1970s, psychologist Richard Bootzin developed a method called stimulus control therapy,3 which focused on preserving the bed and bedroom as a cue for sleep, and which turned out to be a critical component of CBT-I. In the late 1970s, the concept of “sleep hygiene” as we now understand it in sleep medicine was introduced by psychologist Peter Hauri.4

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