Home > Social Psychology, Stress and Pressure > Interesting Insights from the Sleep Doctor

Interesting Insights from the Sleep Doctor

InsomniaEarlier this year, I’d been having trouble sleeping. Especially so on class nights, when I’d get home late and still feel energized and wound up.

A friend of mine gave me a sleep CD (thank you for that, by the way) which, after several weeks of procrastination and stubbornness, I eventually tried. To my surprise, it wasn’t a “fall asleep to me” CD. It was more of an audiobook, NOT designed to be listened to at bedtime.

The voice on the CD was that of Dr. Gregg Jacobs, a sleep disorders specialist from the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In each of his five or so tracks, he would discuss a different concept, and the idea was that you would listen to one track per week and work on a different concept over the course of that week.

I found his information interesting and useful. There were one or two concepts he touched on that especially perked my ears, concepts that have usefulness way beyond merely trying to sleep better.

Dr. Jacobs touches on a concept called “cognitive restructuring.” A lot of sleep problems are primarily caused by worrying about getting sleep. The worry triggers the stress response (see my previous article), which creates more worry and more stress.

Cognitive RestructuringThe worries we’re talking about are based on beliefs that sound like these:

  • I must get eight hours of sleep.
  • I won’t be able to function tomorrow.
  • I didn’t sleep at all last night.
  • My insomnia is going to cause me long-term problems.
  • I can’t take naps during the day.
  • I can’t fall asleep without a pill.

Nothing really surprising here so far. These sounded very familiar to me, and I’m sure sound familiar to all of us. But here’s the kicker: most of the time, they aren’t even true. They’re usually very inaccurate, bordering on complete bullshit.

Sleep HoursFor example, conventional wisdom says we need eight hours of sleep a night. A lot of us get very tangled up in our heads about not getting the magic eight hours. However, recent studies show that getting as little as five hours of sleep per night is associated with longer life expectancy in contrast to those who get nine hours per night.

Also, the effects of sleep loss on performance has a lot of dependent variables that effect it. A lot of times, the perceived performance loss might be due more to the underlying stress that caused the sleep loss than due to the sleep loss itself.

Bottom line: when we can re-wire our concerns and priorities so as not to worry as much about these issues, we cause ourselves less stress and get better sleep. It’s one of the single most effective measures in improving sleep.

Now, here’s my thing:

When it dawned on my that I might simply be self-sabotaging my own sleep, a light bulb went off. In how many other areas, I wondered, was I inventing my own drama based on inaccurate thoughts, and then having that stress interfere with my well-being and my results?


Seinfeld (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Think about this one in your life. It’s like something from Seinfeld. Have you ever invented your own stress when someone hasn’t gotten back to you right away about something? Have you ever assumed someone had an expectation for you that they never really had?

This happens to all of us to varying degrees. When I wrote in my last entry about limiting “melodramatic thinking,” a lot of people wrote comments along the lines of, “Yeah, it’d be great if I could turn that off!” So we have to ask ourselves, when we get worked up about something, how true, really, are the underlying thoughts? Do we know it’s a big deal, or are we limiting and worrying ourselves unnecessarily?

One last note: in another section on relaxation, Dr. Jacobs noted that relaxing systematically during the day helps suppress the stress response. That instantly got my attention. I’ve written previously about conditioning the stress response, and I would be very interested to learn if relaxation and/or meditation have been proven to alter or suppress stress hormones. I will be doing further research on this.

  1. Deb R
    May 23, 2011 at 9:52 PM

    Cognitive dissonance and cognitive restructuring was huge when I was at school studying psychology. I used cognitive restructuring to get rid of an irrational fear of driving as my clinical psych project. I got my license and I got an A. As you know, I am now a better driver than you. (Drive manual much?) HA!

    In all seriousness, it really is the things we tell ourselves that get in our way. A lot of quirks and neuroses can be quelled with a self diagnostic questioning the logic of our beliefs. For instance, “I smoke” with “smoking causes cancer” causes dissonance. We justify, “I’ll gain weight if I quit” or “it calms me down.” The dissonance can be diverted by lying to ourselves about why we do things, but it doesn’t solve the problem, truly and we know it. Once you are honest with yourself about a harmful behavior, you can use cognitive restructuring to honestly solve the issue.

    When I was getting rid of my fear of driving, I first assigned myself to mark down on a pad I carried with me how many times a day I had a negative thought about driving. As I marked it down, I would then replace the thought with a positive thought, for instance; “I am a bad driver” replaced with, “I am not a bad driver, I am just inexperienced and will learn.” After many marks, and replacements, I had a better, truer feeling about who I was as a driver, and realized I really wasn’t all that bad.

    Each time I went driving, I rewarded myself with the destination–a friend’s house or out for ice cream or to another positive location. I took my nicest friend to the DMV to praise me and tell me how easy it would be to pass the driving test. After I got my license, I went on a two week driving trip with my boyfriend up the west coast. It was a blast. And my fear was conquered.

    Cognitive restructuring is a pretty no-nonsense way of getting around our quirks, but it does require self awareness and a genuine interest in changing something.

  2. Sarah Slocombe
    May 24, 2011 at 8:13 AM

    Hey, Scott.

    You might have a look at “Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD. It’s a friendly, straightforward, culture- and spirituality-neutral guide to mindfulness meditation by the founder of the very successful stress clinic at UMass.

    Your mention of Seinfeld made me laugh because it reminded me I could stand to update my references. This behaviour is what I call “getting trapped in a Thomas Hardy novel” — The Mayor of Casterbridge starts badly and goes downhill from there because the characters consistently expect the worst and don’t check. A little benefit of the doubt goes a long way, eh?

    I really enjoy your columns, btw. Like you, I tend to try acting-related pondering on non-acting scenarios and vice versa. Feels sensible to me. :-) I wonder what the get-to-sleep equivalent of easing worries on stage by focusing on another person is?

    Best wishes.

  3. May 24, 2011 at 9:18 PM

    I defintely agree that worrying about not getting enough sleep and then thinking about all the things you will do wrong tomorrow or how tired you will look/ be because you did not get enough sleep, can prevent you from sleeping. Good post.

  4. June 6, 2011 at 5:37 AM

    I also teach. I found that sheer exhaustion puts me to sleep…perhaps that’s a different issue.

  1. May 21, 2012 at 4:10 PM
  2. February 28, 2013 at 12:41 PM

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