Described as a persistent inability to sleep, insomnia affects up to 40% of individuals at some stage in their lives. Insomnia can wreak havoc on our day to day functioning and contribute to problems in every area of our lives, including work, school and relationships. It can also impact negatively on our physical and mental well-being. What’s more is that long-term insomnia or insomnia that lasts for an extended duration of time, has been known to be notoriously tricky to treat. Oftentimes, pharmacological treatments or ‘sleeping pills’ have been deemed the most promising and worthwhile form of a treatment. However although these treatments can contribute to better sleeping patterns, they are not without their consequences. Pharmacological treatments for insomnia can cause a number of side-effects including mental slowing, problems with memory, and daytime drowsiness.
Thankfully however, encouraging research has emerged to suggest that non-pharmacological treatments, namely psychotherapeutic alternatives such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) are showing increasing promise for disordered sleeping. In their evaluation of the existing randomised controlled trials for psychotherapeutic treatments, researcher Dr. Nicole Tang and her team from the United Kingdom found that this form of treatment lead improvements in sleep quality and fatigue (RCTs involve comparing randomly allocated treatment versus non-treatment groups and are considered the gold standard for clinical research). Additionally, the individuals that were experiencing insomnia as a result of chronic pain from an illness or otherwise, reported decreases in pain and reductions in symptoms of depression, as a result of nonpharmacological treatment. These effects were found to be longstanding, particularly if the treatment was undertaking face to face as opposed to online or by telephone.
So what does this treatment look like? CBT for insomnia generally involves a number of different treatment components including psychoeducation, sleep hygiene (encouraging practices that contribute to better sleeping), stimulus control, sleep restriction, cognitive therapy and relaxation. Treatment can usually be accessed through a registered clinical psychologist who specializes in this area of practice. For further information about this type of treatment as well as some treatment options please see the links provided below.
The evidence for the effectiveness of psychotherapeutic treatments for insomnia is so far at least, limited. However studies like that of Dr. Tang and her team demonstrate the vast possibilities that exist for treating this extremely prevalent and detrimental condition. For the vast majority of people who experience insomnia or disordered sleeping, their illness has a psychological component and therefore speaking with a counsellor or psychotherapist can often offer some opportunity to gain clarity or understanding about issues contributing to their inability to sleep.
To find a registered psychologist in your area please see here.
For information about Vancouver Coastal Health’s Sleep Disorders Program please see here.
For some self-help information about insomnia please see here.
Ms. Niamh Allen, M.A. B.Sc.