Help Me Fix It: Dr. Richard Besser Takes on Insomnia

Battle those sleepless nights with these tips for healthy rest.

ByABC News via logo
May 9, 2010, 6:47 PM

May 10, 2010 — -- A typical night for Christine Riley involves a lot of tossing and turning, a lot of staring at nothing and, much to her chagrin, very little sleeping.

"It feels like hours. ... I lay there and I lay there," the 44-year-old school teacher from Mansfield, Mass., told "Good Morning America."

Like 30 million other Americans, Riley suffers from insomnia. It's a problem that goes well beyond the bedroom.

"I'm in a meeting and I can't finish the thought because my brain is shut down," Riley said.

Riley said she has tried taking vitamins, going to bed earlier, exercising and even taking sleeping pills but nothing has worked.

Getting the proper amount of sleep can affect the rest of your life because sleep could be connected to other activities neurologically, Toth said.

"It's likely that there's some areas of the brain that are more activated and these areas might correlate to those complaints that someone with insomnia might have," said sleep expert Claudia Toth of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine department at Sleep Health Centers in Weymouth, Mass.

Medicine, it turns out, isn't necessarily the answer for insomnia, the most common sleeping disorder, Toth said.

"You don't need to take medicine to deal with insomnia," she said. "In the long run, cognitive behavioral therapy tends to be a more effective approach."

Cognitive behavioral therapy retrains your brain in order to change your behavior.

It's a therapy that Leah Schloss said worked wonders for her.

Schloss said she had been suffering with sleep problems off an on for over two years before she started cognitive behavioral therapy with Toth about three months ago.

"It was pretty clear from the outset that I was going to bed way too early," the 40-year-old from Newton, Mass., said. "I was spending all this time in bed where I wasn't sleeping."

Using sleep restriction and stimulus control, Schloss said her sleep has now become "stable."

"You know, I still have the occasional not-so-great night, but I sleep pretty much-- I have a very regular sleep pattern now," she said. "One of the best things about it is I just don't worry about sleep as much... I really just have less anxiety and I think it frees my mind to do other things."

For more on getting healthy sleep, check out ABC News' special Sleep section by clicking here.

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are several parts to cognitive behavioral sleep therapy.

Cognitive Control and Psychotherapy

This technique involves getting rid of negative thoughts about sleeping or any worries that keep you awake at night, the Mayo Clinic said.

Sleep Restriction

"The sleep-restriction technique basically involves someone limiting time in bed closer to the amount of time that they estimate they're actually sleeping," Toth said. "After getting into bed, we'll have you get up and out of bed in about 15 minutes if you feel like you're not sleepy. Move into another room, do puzzles, listen to music. I want you to wait until you get drowsy, no matter how long it takes. We want to help you build your hunger for sleep. ... Avoid all activities other than sleep in bed."

According to ABC News senior health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser, the most important part of this part of the therapy is making sure you wake up at the same time every day.

"Initially you may get less sleep, but setting your alarm for the same time every day will help ensure you are tired at night," Besser said.

Remain Passively Awake

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the Mayo Clinic suggests you can alleviate anxiety about not sleeping by simply not making any effort to fall asleep.

Stimulus Control

The stimulus control method helps you control what your bed means to you and can help you get rid of any negative associations you may have with it. Use the bed only for sleeping and intimacy and ditch the television and other distractions.

Sleep Hygiene

This part of the therapy involves tempering or eliminating lifestyle habits that could interfere with sleep like smoking or drinking too much coffee or alcohol. It also involves a winding down period for an hour or two before bed.