Believing you’re an insomniac may be costing you sleep and productivity

Is your insomnia all in your head? A new review of the sleep disorder in Behaviour Research and Therapy found that your inability to fall asleep is not enough to make you an insomniac — you have to identify as one, too.

Comparing poor sleepers with poor sleepers who also complain about their insomnia in two studies of older adults, they found that complaining about your insomnia made the biggest difference. Poor sleepers were identified as people who were awake at least 30 minutes three times a week when they wanted to fall asleep but couldn’t.

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You would think that your lack of sleep would automatically lead to side effects of sleeplessness, but that’s not what the researchers found. The quality of sleep the participants had didn’t determine whether they had insomnia. Complaining good sleepers — who objectively got a good amount of sleep — would exhibit comparable levels of daytime impairment as people with insomnia. Poor sleepers who had a restless night wouldn’t automatically experience insomnia the next day.

Your mindset matters more than reality

Whether or not you got much sleep the night before, you wouldn’t feel daytime impairment on your cognitive functions unless you reported high distress about your sleeplessness. In other words, the conviction that one has insomnia is a more predictive factor to you getting a sleep disorder than the quality of sleep itself.

“These two studies challenged the conventional wisdom that dysfunction associated with insomnia was due to disturbed sleep and could best be alleviated by improving sleep patterns,” the review states.

As the principles of cognitive behavioral therapy recognize, how you think changes how you feel. When you think you’re an insomniac, you help yourself become one. “When dread intermingles with sleep, the bedroom is a neutral or welcoming environment by day, a dystopia by night,” the researchers warned.

Reviewing separate studies, the researchers found that people who obsess over their sleeplessness were found to be at greater risk for self-stigma, depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety, and fatigue.

How to fight insomnia

But for people who identify as insomniacs, there’s still hope of obtaining that elusive good night’s sleep. As the review outlines, “treatment is pushing against conviction” that you’re an insomniac and you will always be one. When you catastrophize your bad sleep habits and beat yourself up about not getting enough sleep, you’re not helping yourself. To push against this all-or-nothing thinking, researchers suggested asking yourself the following questions to reframe your attitudes about sleep:

  1. Can you be a normal sleeper if you are not a perfect sleeper?
  2. Does having troubled sleep change the way you think about yourself?
  3. What do you think the impact of seeing yourself as an insomniac is?
  4. If your sleep improved, how would that change the way you think about yourself?

These questions are all to help you challenge reframe your concept of yourself as a bad sleeper. When it comes to getting rest, your “sleep self-appraisal takes precedence over sleep,” the researchers concluded.

And too many of us identify as bad sleepers. We are in a sleeplessness epidemic. Three in four employees aren’t getting the recommended eight hours of sleep on a work night, and they say their performance at work has suffered for this.

With this new research, you can now combat your sleep deprivation by first recognizing that it doesn’t define you. By learning to separate the insomnia from the insomniac label, you can spare yourself from the guilt and health risks of staying up too late.