Try behavioral interventions for chronic insomnia


“The greatest medicine of all is teaching people how not to need it.” – Hippocrates

For many years, over-the-counter and prescription medications indicated for sleep problems/disorders have been available to patients. But the side effects associated with some of these medications are many. In light of the numerous nonpharmacologic interventions that are available to patients, they should be offered first when appropriate.

A sleepless woman in bed klebercordeiro/Getty Images

One of the top nonpharmacologic interventions is cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I, which the American Academy of Sleep Medicine’s clinical guidelines say should be used as initial treatment if possible.1 Elements of CBT-I include cognitive therapy, which is aimed at reducing dysfunctional beliefs about sleep. Common distortions expressed by patients include: “I cannot sleep without medications” and “I must get 8 hours of sleep to feel refreshed and function well the next day.” It helps in dealing with anxiety and catastrophic thinking to establish realistic expectations and treatment related to insomnia.

CBT-I can be delivered in the form of monotherapy or in a combined manner. The individual components include psychoeducation, behavioral strategies, cognitive therapy, and relaxation training. CBT-I combines cognitive therapy with behavioral interventions. Behavioral elements include stimulus control therapy and sleep restriction therapy. Relaxation therapy might or might not be included. Sleep hygiene education usually is a part of it.2

Two other kinds of CBT that can be effective options are telephone-based CBT-I and Internet-based CBT-I.3,4 Meanwhile, among the disadvantages of CBT for insomnia are longer duration of therapy and lack of skilled clinicians.5

Many other kinds of behavioral interventions are available to patients with problems related to sleep, including stimulus control therapy, relaxation therapy, exercise therapy, and sleep restriction therapy.

Stimulus control therapy

This is a strategy aimed at strengthening the association of bed and bedroom to sleep, establishing a consistent sleep-wake rhythm, and reducing the activities that might interfere with sleep. This behavioral therapy is based on the idea that arousal occurs as a conditioned response to the stimulus of sleep environment, and it is among the most effective behavioral treatments.6,7 Strategies include the following:

1. Lie down with the intention of sleeping when sleepy.

2. Do not watch television, read, eat or worry while in bed. Use bed only for sleep and sex.

3. Get out of bed if unable to fall asleep within 10-15 minutes and go to another room. Return to bed only when sleepy. Do not watch the clock. Repeat this step as many times as necessary throughout the night.

4. Set an alarm clock to wake up at a fixed time each morning, including weekends, regardless of how much sleep you got during the night.

5. Do not take a nap during the day.

Dr. Gurprit S. Lamba, Bayridge Hospital, Lynn, Mass.

Dr. Gurprit S. Lamba

The goal of these strategies is to extinguish negative associations between bed and undesirable outcomes, such as wakefulness and frustration. One study showed that stimulus control participants, unlike control group participants, experienced significant improvement at follow-up for total sleep time, sleep efficiency, and sleep quality.8


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