Trouble sleeping? You can train your brain to beat insomnia

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. -- Some nights counting sheep just won't cut it; we toss and turn while our minds race. But experts say you can actually train yourself to beat chronic insomnia, a sleep disorder characterized by difficulty falling or staying asleep.

Before you head to the pharmacy and waste a few bucks on over-the-counter sleep meds, cognitive behavioral therapy can be your strongest first line of defense against insomnia.

The American College of Physicians and Dr. Leisha Cuddihy, a sleep psychologist at Spectrum Health, recommend you turn to therapy instead of sleeping pills. "There are lots of tips you hear, like don’t drink too much caffeine in the day, don’t nap -- kind of sleep hygiene things. That is not cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia. Those tips are more kind of guidelines to prevent developing insomnia and be risk factors for poor sleep."

CBT for insomnia focuses on the behaviors and thoughts that get in the way of a good night's sleep and worsen insomnia over time. Some of those behaviors include oversleeping, worrying about sleep, or stressing over other things in life.

"The irony is the more you try and sleep the less likely it is you’re going to sleep," Dr. Cuddihy said.

"The more powerful components of the treatment are modifying your nighttime behaviors, thought process and sleep process as well," Dr. Cuddihy said.

The treatment involves a group of strategies, such as focusing on relaxation, mindfulness and meditation. Doctors learn what your sleeping habits are and tweak them along the way.

"The process of the treatment involves manipulating your sleep schedule so it’s more consistent with how much sleep you get, and talking about what things you can do if you’re not sleeping, other than staring at the ceiling and worrying.

Dr. Cuddihy says that you shouldn't need meds to fall asleep. "Most people, I do think you can do it without it, but you have to decide if that's something you want to do." Worry not and the sleep will follow.

Dr. Cuddihy sees a typical sleep therapy patient every other week for about five weeks, or until their sleeping patterns improve.

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is covered by most insurance plans.

For more information about CBT-I, click here.