Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I)

Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom's profile picture
Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom, PhD
Dec 19, 202117 min read
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For years, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been the gold standard for treating insomnia. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques for insomnia (known as CBT-I) have been proven to work in numerous clinical trials, are equally effective with medication in the short term and more effective than medication in the long term.

The American Academy for Sleep Medicine, the American College of Physicians, and the European Sleep Research Society all recommend CBT for insomnia (CBT-I) as the first-line treatment.

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)?

CBT is a form of therapy that was initially developed as a treatment for depression. The Cognitive in CBT refers to mental activity, such as thoughts, beliefs, memories, images or values. The behavioral part includes all the things we do on a daily basis. This can be things you do with others or things you do alone.

Both behavioral and cognitive therapies saw their beginnings when providers like Aaron T. Beck sought more effective remedies for challenging patterns of thoughts and behaviors. Though there are strong roots in both types of work, the research shows that combining the two provides the most effective results. And so, cognitive behavioral therapy was born.

Cognitions (thoughts)

A core principle in CBT is that our emotional reactions and behaviors are influenced by how we think about ourselves, others, and the world around us. Humans have a great capacity for thinking, but that requires time and energy. Our minds are wired to be efficient and so frequently we engage in  mental shortcuts and react to events that happen without giving them much thought. These mental shortcuts, known as heuristics, can save time but often omit relevant information and lead to inaccurate assumptions. These types of errors are called cognitive biases and often lead us to interpret and process information inaccurately.

If you ask two people to give a presentation on something they are both knowledgeable about, you might get two different reactions. One is hesitant and suggests someone else. The other immediately and enthusiastically agrees. It's the exact same situation. So why do they react so differently?

CBT explains that this difference in emotional reactions and behaviors comes from different ways of thinking about the situation. Perhaps, one thinks he might start to shake and others will notice, while the other one thinks that this is a good opportunity to share his knowledge.

The common sense model

The cognitive model

CBT proposes that it’s not the situation that makes us feel something, but the thoughts and interpretations about that situation.

Behavior

Changing what you do is often the most powerful way of changing how you think and feel about something. This is because the new information, based on the actual experience, requires your mind to challenge its own assumptions. The behavioral part in CBT is about intentionally engaging in new behaviors and learning so these new experiences can inform your cognitive assumptions.

If you always avoid giving presentations because you fear they will be a failure, you will never experience a successful one that can challenge your assumption. Your negative thoughts about yourself in that situation will be very difficult, if not impossible, to change. A common unhelpful and distorted belief that people often have when speaking to a crowd is that they will get anxious, start to shake, and the audience will see that as a sign of weakness.

To target the cognition that shaking is a sign of weakness, CBT uses something called a behavioral experiment. In these kinds of experiments, the goal is to get real experiences about what happens if you shake (or not), if other people notice (or not) and if others notice, if they react negatively to shaking (or not). A typical behavioral experiment might be to videotape yourself talking in front of a crowd. When viewing the video afterward, try to notice the level of shaking and what reaction the group had to this shaking. Most likely, you will see that the amount of shaking and/or judging is less than what your mind thought it would be. Also, even if you did shake, and people did or did not notice, you have the experience of being able to manage it and still do your presentation.

The CBT triangle (putting it all together)

Therapy involves changing how you feel about something. Whether it is to achieve a goal or to stop being anxious or sad — it's all about changing emotions. Now, this is hard to do directly. We have little control over our emotions; they will pop up whether you like it or not. CBT aims to change how you feel about something through our thoughts (cognitions) and behaviors.

CBT is evolving

CBT has been used by thousands of therapists and millions of patients from all over the world since the 1960s. Since then, different CBT approaches have been developed for a wide range of problems, and research has repeatedly shown its effectiveness. It’s common to talk about CBT as a specific kind of therapy, but in reality there are many models of cognitive behavioral therapies.

One of these models is CBT for insomnia, which this guide is mainly about.

How CBT-I helps you sleep

CBT helps with unhelpful thinking and behavior, but how it is used to treat insomnia isn’t always immediately obvious. To illustrate how insomnia is caused by cognitions and how CBT can help you sleep, let’s use two fictional people who represent two different ways of experiencing sleep. Meet George, who has insomnia and Susan, who doesn’t.

George has had insomnia for a long time. Over the years he’s had many sleepless nights, spent tossing and turning and waiting for sleep. George's insomnia has been getting worse lately and he frequently wakes up in the middle of the night and can't get back to sleep. For the last couple of months, he hasn’t been getting more than 4 or 5 hours of sleep each night.

Susan has always been a good sleeper. She always falls asleep within fifteen minutes of going to bed and wakes up feeling refreshed. Susan doesn’t really think much about sleep, it’s just something that happens when she goes to bed.

Why does George have insomnia and not Susan?

What may not be obvious but separates George from Susan, is that they have very different beliefs about sleep. They experience precisely the same situation each night; they both go to bed and try to sleep. Yet their thoughts and feelings in this situation are very different.

George worries that it's going to be another night of sleeplessness and that he will be dead tired at work the following day. He thinks about how a lack of sleep might damage his body and wonders if he will ever sleep well again. The minute his head hits the pillow, he's wide awake. His mind races and he starts feeling anxious and upset. He's exhausted but can't seem to fall asleep. After spending quite a bit of time unsuccessfully trying to sleep, he pulls out his phone and listens to a podcast to distract himself. He finally falls asleep a few hours before he has to get up for work.

Susan goes to bed and doesn't think much about it at all. She is fast asleep fifteen minutes after she turns off the lights.

Thoughts, behavior, and feelings

George’s sleep problems started when the company he was working for experienced financial trouble and had to downsize. He worried about losing his job and not being able to afford rent. George found that he became preoccupied with thoughts of worry most of the day and even more as nighttime approached and it was time to sleep. He tried, as most do when facing problems in life, to think his way out of it. After a while, George noticed that his sleep was getting worse. It frequently took a long time to fall asleep, and he often woke up multiple times every night.

Fortunately, George didn’t lose his job. The company is now doing fine, and he doesn’t worry about it anymore, but he’s still struggling with sleep.

George’s story is typical when it comes to insomnia. It's common that some initial stressful life event sets it off, but the problems persist even when the stressor has resolved. It is notable that the event that causes insomnia in the first place varies, but when insomnia has been established, people unknowingly continue to behave and think in certain patterns that interfere with sleep.

CBT-I does not concern itself much with what initially caused George's insomnia. Instead, it focuses on the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that maintain it. In George's case, we can see a pattern of him worrying a lot about sleep and the consequences of not getting enough. After a while, he starts to associate the bed with feelings of frustration and anxiety.

When George's thoughts constantly revolve around sleep and the consequences of him not getting enough, his mind will interpret this as a threat. The brain's threat detection system doesn't make the distinction between thinking about a threat or actually experiencing one. It does what it’s supposed to do and tells the body to get prepared for the threat.

When the brain signals the body to get ready, the body reacts immediately. It goes into a state of arousal where the main goal is to be prepared to handle anything. Arousal is, in many ways, a state that is the opposite of sleeping. Your heart beats a little faster, your breathing starts to increase in frequency. Pupils dilate, and you are more vigilant. Because the brain believes you are in danger, you go into a mild form of fight-or-flight mode where your senses are heightened, and muscles are ready to spring into action.

The most convincing and compelling way of learning that a previously held belief is false is experiencing the opposite. George has the view that he has to put in a lot of effort to get to sleep. A goal of cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia is going to sleep without thinking or worrying too much about it. We want George to be more like Susan and experience falling asleep without effort, and as a result, learn that he can fall asleep easily without thinking too much about it. To help people get this valuable experience, CBT for insomnia offers up a wide variety of tools; the two most effective behavioral interventions are  sleep restriction and stimulus control. Sleep restriction and stimulus control aims to get you to experience what it's like to sleep without worrying about it. You gain confidence in your body's ability to go to sleep on its own without you having to think about it all.

Sleep restriction therapy

When people who struggle with sleep hear about sleep restriction the first time, they immediately think it's counterintuitive. Why should you restrict your sleep when you want more of it?

To answer this question, we need to learn about sleep drive. Sleep drive is the force that makes you sleepy when you have been awake for a long time. One of the measures of your sleep drive is a hormone called adenosine. The moment you wake up in the morning, the body starts producing adenosine. When the brain detects high enough levels, it starts shutting off wake-promoting areas in the brain, and you get sleepy. The longer you stay awake, the more adenosine the body produces, and your sleep drive increases.

The name sleep restriction is a bit misleading, and it could just as well have been called time-in-bed restriction or sleep consolidation. Sleep restriction is, in essence, spending less time in bed to increase the sleep drive. When starting with sleep restriction, you determine how much sleep you have been getting in total for the last week. If you have been getting an average of about 7 hours of sleep each night, you get an initial 7 hour window of time to sleep. This means that if you have to get up at 8 am each morning, you shouldn't try to sleep before 1 am. The 7 hours between 1 am and 8 am is called your sleep window. Whether you sleep or not in your window is not important, at least in the beginning. What is important is that you do not sleep outside of your sleep window.

It's important to note that sleep restriction isn't meant as something you should do for the rest of your life. It also gets a little easier as you progress. Your sleep window will increase when you stop spending so much time trying to sleep.

As previously mentioned, behavioral changes that lead to new experiences are amongst the most powerful methods for bringing about change in cognitions. By restricting your time in bed and building your sleep drive, you will strengthen the forces that make you sleep, so they are stronger than the forces that keep you awake.

Stimulus control

Many people who suffer from insomnia report that they have a much easier time falling asleep on their couch, for example, than in their bed. This can be explained with something called classical conditioning, which is the way that all brains develop connections through experience.

Conditioning is a form of learning that happens through associating one thing to another. An example of being conditioned is when you hear a particular song at the same time you are having a good time. The next time you hear the song, the song makes you happy, in part, because you associate the song with a good time.

When we have regular problems falling asleep and or staying asleep, we begin to associate the bed and trying to sleep with negative emotions. We get frustrated, angry, sad and anxious about not sleeping. We toss and turn, and despite being tired, we can't get to sleep. The bed and bedroom can become associated with negative feelings.

CBT for insomnia uses stimulus control to break the negative association between trying to sleep and negative feelings. stimulus control works by having a set of guidelines or rules for sleep.

Some rules for stimulus control:

  • The bed should only be used for sleeping (and sex).
  • Don't stay in bed outside of your sleep window.
  • Don't go to bed until you are sleepy.
  • If you can't sleep, get out of bed for a while and try again later.
  • Get up at the same time everyday
  • No napping during the day

It’s not about sleep hygiene

"Avoid caffeine, take a shower, have a bedtime routine, and get to bed at the same time each night." Sound familiar? Chances are high that you have heard advice like this before if you've been having trouble sleeping.

A common misconception about CBT for insomnia is that its advice about sleep that you have heard before. Sleep hygiene recommendations like the above ones aren't necessarily harmful on their own and can be beneficial in some situations. There is, however, little evidence that sleep hygiene alone helps people with insomnia.

A problem with sleep hygiene advice is that it gives you the impression that sleep is something you can control if you try harder. If this were the case, insomnia probably wouldn’t exist.

CBT for insomnia involves making behavioral changes too, but with a very different intent. Here the interventions are designed to help you experience sleep by setting your body up to return to its innate ability.

Additional tools used in CBT for insomnia

Stimulus Control alone or in conjunction with sleep restriction is an essential aspect of CBT for insomnia because they directly target your sleep drive and daily patterns around sleep. There are also cognitive techniques that are helpful. Research shows a sleep program that involves both a behavioral component and a cognitive component have the most optimal impact on insomnia.

Cognitive restructuring

Brains are wired to take shortcuts in our thinking. Taking shortcuts and thinking fast is mostly a good thing in most situations as it makes us more efficient. If we had to think things through and make an effort to be conscious of every thought, in every situation, we wouldn't have much time for anything else.

However, there are times when thinking fast, and jumping to conclusions can become unhelpful. Thoughts are influenced by how we feel and the things we have experienced in the past. We are susceptible to something called cognitive biases – which is just another word for relying more on the story in our heads than the information unfolding in front of us. There are a lot of different cognitive biases, and they share the common challenge of  how we see the world. One such example is confirmation bias – the tendency to filter information and only notice what confirms what we already believe to be true.

It turns out, the more that we struggle with insomnia, the more likely we are to have cognitive distortions about sleep. As we’ve discussed, these distortions perpetuate insomnia. To help us slow down and put ourselves in a position to actually do something about these biases and skewed thinking, we can use several tools including cognitive restructuring, cognitive defusion, and designated worry time..

Strategies to respond to worry

We have already learned that worrying about sleep is a factor that sustains insomnia. But for many with insomnia, worry isn't just limited to sleep, and a general approach for handling worry might be beneficial.

Cognitive restructuring is a technique involving identifying thoughts in a situation, what emotions follow these thoughts, and how strong these emotions are. By writing them down as sentences, we force our minds to slow down enough to catch our biased way of thinking. Like sleep, worry can't really be controlled. You can't stop thoughts from popping up in your head. But you can change how you react to them.

Changing how you respond to thoughts is known as cognitive defusion. This can initially sound like a strange concept, but you already react to some thoughts differently than others. You have thousands of thoughts every day. Some you don't pay much attention to, and some you dwell on. We all tend to think some thoughts are more important than others and require attention. But they are all essentially the same thing – just thoughts.

Usually, we don't notice ourselves responding to worry, and most of the time, this just happens automatically. To pause and start making active choices when it comes to individual thoughts, we need to train our ability to take a bird's-eye perspective on our thoughts. Typically mindfulness is used for this, but also specific attention training exercises where you, for example, train your mind to switch your attention with sounds.

The idea is that you need to become aware of worry to do something about it. There are several ways you can directly respond to worry - the most straightforward way to start is by postponing worry to a specific time. This is known as designated worry time (DWT).This works by noticing thoughts of worry during the day and writing them down. Instead of engaging with these thoughts right away, you practice delaying the response to a planned "worry time."

In your worry time, you go through your list of worries during the day and decide how you want to respond. If the worry is something you can do something about, you use the time to make a plan. If it's the kind of worry that you can't do something about (most of them are), then you don't do anything about it. Just let them exist without engaging with them.

Overcome insomnia for good with Dawn's CBT-I program

There are several reasons physicians recommend CBT-I as the go-to treatment for insomnia. It helps your body return to natural sleep without the use of pills, it addresses the underlying problems causing insomnia, the results are lasting so that you can end the cycle of sleeplessness, and it has been proven to be effective.

Dawn Health’s online CBT-I program is grounded in the same evidence-based practices used during in-person CBT-I and is equally effective. CBT-I online makes sleep therapy more convenient, accessible, and affordable, so it is easy to get started and take the first steps toward consistent, restful sleep right away.


Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom's profile picture
Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom, PhD

Dr. Colleen Ehrnstrom is a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialty practice in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Areas of expertise include insomnia and other sleep disorders, anxiety, and depression.

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