Got Sleep?

POSTED: Tuesday, December 22, 2009 - 10:02am

UPDATED: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 - 2:25pm

Having troubles sleeping? Call a psychologist...

Got sleep? So many people don't that in one recent ten year period, researchers found a fifty-percent increase in prescriptions for sleep aids. But many people find that medications alone aren't enough.

That's where psychologists are stepping into the picture.

Professor Steve Littenman struggled with insomnia for more than 20 years. "I would just kind of dread getting into bed and trying to get to sleep," Littenman said.

At some point in their lives more than one in three americans say they've struggled from time to time. For one in ten, sleeplessness lasts months to years.

That means millions of people have more accidents, are more prone to high blood pressure, depression and diabetes and may even have weaker immune systems. All because they don't get enough sleep.

Professor Littenman entered a sleep disorders program, where Doctor Jason Ong's first step is to help patients stop thinking sleep is hard, even impossible.

"They have lost confidence in being able to sleep," Dr. Ong said. When a patient is worried about sleep before bedtime, it worsens the insomnia. That makes the next day worse, and can lead to another night of anxiety and sleeplessness. A vicious cycle that becomes an obsession.

"I think I started to let my life revolve around sleeping," Professor Littenman said. Patients also ask what triggers insomnia. It's often a past traumatic event that disrupted the sleep. In that type of case patients need to work on reprogramming themselves.

Professor Littenman learned not to go to bed until he was truly sleepy, not just fatigued. Dr. Ong says there's a big difference. "Fatigued is usually when people are feeling tired, run down, maybe not having any energy. Versus sleepiness, which is more like drowsiness. like they have to struggle to stay awake."

And no matter when those sleepy moments hit, Psychologists say, stick with the same wake up time.

Through it all, log what you're doing and how you're feeling. The things you did on bad nights, you change. The things you did on good nights, you incorporate. And if you start having a few good nights, you may have found your body's natural sleep rhythm. "Until we kind of get it to a place where we're close to a person's natural sleep needs," Dr. Ong said.

Professor Littenman discovered he didn't need as much sleep as he thought to function the next day. That made him increasingly confident and less anxious as bedtime beckoned. "It felt good to just start to feel drowsy and then just nod off," Professor Littenman said.

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