There can be a large mental component that prevents people from sleeping well. This may manifest as a racing mind that prevents you from falling asleep at night. It might mean you wake up multiple times per night with no real cause.
There are ways you can teach your mind to sleep deeper and to fall asleep faster. Some of these techniques are solid and have been proven with countless scientific studies, while others are on the cutting edge and more research needs to be done to reach a definitive conclusion. This article should give you a good basis on how to begin teaching your mind to sleep better.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
Cognitive behavioral therapy techniques have their roots in stoic philosophy. You can think of CBT as using your mind to critically think about how you are thinking, and then to actively begin thinking differently. Your brain is built to recognize and create patterns which is why CBT can be so powerful. Sleep itself is just another pattern that can be affected by the mind.
In this randomized, placebo-controlled clinical trial, at a single academic medical center, CBT was tested along with traditional pharmacological approaches for insomnia. 78 older adults participated to see how best to treat their insomnia, both short and long term.
They found that CBT alone could reduce the time spent awake by as much as 55%. When combined with some pharmaceuticals the effectiveness was boosted to 63%.
Here is the kicker: Those that underwent cognitive behavioral training continued to sleep better into the future. The group that only took sleep inducing drugs lost the sleep benefits as soon as they stopped taking the sleep medications.
“Subjects treated with behavior therapy sustained their clinical gains at follow-up, whereas those treated with drug therapy alone did not.” - Charles M. Morin, PhD; et al.
Dr. Shultz was a german psychiatrist that developed autogenic training (AT) in the 1930’s. It is a mind-body technique that allows you to relax much more deeply than you typically are able to throughout the day.
Autogenic training has many things in common with self-hypnosis. It can produce physical phenomenon, it can become self-guided, and can put the mind in a meditative state.
In this cohort analysis study made by the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine and University College London Hospitals, autogenic training was shown to positively impact insomnia.
There were 153 participants, of whom 73% were identified as having a sleep-related problem. The study showed improvements in sleep onset latency (how fast you fall asleep), falling asleep more quickly after waking up, feeling more refreshed, and feeling more energized after waking up. There were positive emotional benefits too, as well being, anxiety, and depression scores all significantly improved after a course in autogenic training.
This quote from the article sums it up nicely:
“This study suggests that [autogenic training] may improve sleep patterns for patients with various health conditions and reduce anxiety and depression, both of which may result from and cause insomnia. Improvements in sleep patterns occurred despite, or possibly due to, not focusing on sleep during training. [Autogenic training] may provide an approach to insomnia that could be incorporated into primary care.” - Bowden A, Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine
Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy
Although the root word of hypnosis is “hypnos” the greek word for sleep, modern hypnotherapy does not involve a person becoming unconscious. Hypnosis works by bringing about a self-directed altered state, often called a hypnotic trance, which leaves a person more susceptible to beneficial instructions.
Rather than being magic, hypnosis could more properly be described as an enhanced state of learning. You can learn new habits and new beliefs much faster in a hypnotic state. The current field of hypnosis is intertwined with the latest in practical neuroscience and it is evolving as we learn more about how the brain works.
Hypnotic relaxation techniques have been shown to improve sleep. In this multifaceted program for treatment of insomnia in adolescents, hypnosis was used in conjunction with progressive muscle relaxation and CBT to improve sleep in the study participants. More than that, progressive muscle relaxation is also a very common procedure used to induce hypnotic trance.
This describes the process of the study:
“Each treatment session starts with a short warm-up game and ends with the rehearsal of an imaginative or hypnotherapeutic procedure (trance). Participants are asked to practice these trances between the sessions.”
“The adolescents showed a significantly shorter sleep onset latency after the treatment. Furthermore, total sleep time as well as sleep efficiency were significantly higher after the treatment although going to bed earlier is unpopular with adolescents…. The adolescents not only gained more knowledge about sleep and sleep hygiene but also more skills to resolve their sleep problems by applying behavioral as well as hypnotherapeutic strategies.” - Angelika A Schlarb, Department of Psychology, University of Tuebingen.
Another study that researched the efficacy of hypnosis in the treatment of insomnia had this to say:
“Acute and chronic insomnia often respond to relaxation and hypnotherapy approaches, along with sleep hygiene instructions.” - Ng BY, Department of Psychiatry, Singapore General Hospital
Although it was quick to add why there is not much data on this powerful technique:
“It is hard to perform a randomised, double-blind, controlled trial to evaluate hypnotherapy given that cooperation and rapport between patient and therapist is needed to achieve a receptive trance state.”
Hypnosis has been shown time and again to be effective for things like reducing anxiety, pain, and even the side effects of chemotherapy. It’s no wonder that it is starting to show how powerful a tool it can be for sleep.
Meditation is another useful tool that can help improve the quality of your sleep. As a psychological technique, mindfulness meditation allows a person to reflect on their true thoughts and to begin to slow their racing mind.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques have become in vogue recently as more studies have come out demonstrating how effective they can be for increasing emotional well being. Recent research has shown that a regular practice of meditation can actually change the structure of the brain itself, increasing areas associated with emotional control, and shrinking areas linked to stress and worry.
This quote from a meta analysis of 38 articles studying mindfulness helps to identify MBSR as a useful tool for insomnia:
“There is some evidence to suggest that increased practice of mindfulness techniques is associated with improved sleep and that MBSR participants experience a decrease in sleep-interfering cognitive processes (eg, worry). More research is needed using standardized sleep scales and methods, with particular attention to the importance of MBSR home practice.” - Winbush NY
People sometimes think that if you can’t sleep easily, the best thing to do is to reach for the medication. While medication can be helpful, it’s more apparent that psychological approaches are an effective front line tactic to help a person sleep.
It’s often time not one thing that helps a person rebuild their sleep pattern. It can be a combination of meditation, relaxation techniques, hypnosis, sleep hygiene, and CBT that finally allows a person to sleep better. If you have trouble sleeping you should find what works best for you by trying many different approaches.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Benjamin Schoeffler, Ch,t. is a board certified medical hypnotist with the IMDHA. He has a private practice in Boise, ID at Thrive Hypnotherapy and an online sleep hypnosis program.
© 2021 American Sleep Association.