Written by Petra Rattue
According to a new study by Ryerson University experts published in the December issue of Behavior Therapy, taking a sleeping pill or drinking alcohol may not be the most effective way to get a better night sleep in the long run for people suffering from insomnia.
Heather Hood, a PhD student in clinical psychology and lead researcher of the study comments: “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. 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.” Hood, an insomnia therapy specialist, who already researched the link between anxiety disorders and safety behaviour in an earlier study, wanted to establish whether there was also a link to insomnia, given that 10 to 15% of Canadians suffer from clinical levels of insomnia.
Hood, Dr. Colleen Carney, her academic supervisor and director of Ryerson’s Sleep and Depression Laboratory, and other grad. Psychology student Andrea Harris conducted an online survey in which they questioned 397 undergraduate students about their safety behaviors, i.e. their routines to avoid being awake at night, how often they completed these tasks and how much they thought they required to do these tasks in order to sleep. They were also questioned as to what their definition of insufficient sleep was, and to what extent they went to in order to avoid feeling tired.
The findings revealed that 40% of students were poor sleepers who were likely to use safety behaviors that were not helping.
Hood commented: “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. 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 research team also observed that poor sleepers felt dependent on certain tasks to help them sleep. Students that experienced no problems in falling asleep often didn’t think of anything, they simply fell asleep. Carney, who is also a sleep order therapist and who won an award from the Ontario government’s Early Researchers Award program for promising university researchers in 2009, said: “People who are poor sleepers exert a ton of energy trying to force sleep. 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.”
She suggests cognitive behavior therapy as a more effective, long-term solution for sleep sufferers, saying: “In cognitive behavior therapy, which is what we are studying at Ryerson, we are teaching patients 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.”