Worrying about not sleeping could be just as bad for your sleep health as an established sleep disorder, creating a vicious cycle
A review published in Behaviour Research and Therapy suggests that thinking you have a sleep problem, even if you don’t, can be just as detrimental to your wellbeing as actually suffering from a sleep disorder.
Professor of Psychology at the University of Alabama, Kenneth L. Lichstein, PhD, was one of the main bodies behind the research. He reviewed 20 existing studies which looked at how people described their own sleep habits, as well as how researchers measured the quality and quantity of their sleep.
These studies revealed that 37% of participants who identified themselves as having insomnia were actually defined as ‘normal’ sleepers by the researchers involved. According to Lichstein, this has consequences, as “perceived sleep disturbance poses a health risk, even when accompanied by good sleep.”
Even just thinking you suffer sleep problems can lead to serious health concerns
We’ve always known that it’s important to relax and clear your mind at night. But now research is showing that ridding your mind of worry before sleep is even more important than we thought.
Writing in the British Psychological Society Reader’s Digest, Alex Fradera says that “these ‘complaining good sleepers’ can have as high impairment in terms of daily fatigue, anxiety and depression as those suffering under a clinical deficit of sleep.”
This relates to the findings from Lichstein, who concluded that individuals with perceived sleep disorders are more at risk of conditions like hypertension, fatigue, depression, anxiety, self-stigma and even suicidal ideation.
Lichstein says: “Insomnia is a sleep disorder, but it may also be a cognitive appraisal disorder.”
This means that the long history of discrepancies in recorded and self-reported sleep quality can have serious consequences for our mental health, emphasizing concerns for individuals who adopt an “insomniac identity.”
Where does this insomniac identity come from?
Lichstein writes in his review that part of this perceived identity as an insomniac may come from unrealistic sleep expectations paired with anxiety about sleep. He comments that some participants were “convinced that normal sleepers fall asleep in less than 10 minutes”, which consequentially resulted in them thinking that their own average nodding-off time of 20 minutes must make them an insomniac.
“For some,” says Lichstein, “though the night problem exists only in their mind, it still degrades experience during both night and day.”
What is insomnia?
Insomnia is a sleep disorder defined by experiencing difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep or falling back to sleep. It affects all aspects of life for sufferers, as it can lead to increased feelings of tiredness, anxiety, drowsiness, difficulty learning and trouble retaining information. In fact, 95% of people in the UK with insomnia reported low energy levels in their daily lives.
Insomnia affects one in every three people in the UK, according to the NHS. But, as Lichstein’s research highlights, the majority of people who experience sleep problems don’t seek medical support, and when they do “the diagnosis of insomnia is almost always initiated by the patient.”
According to Lichstein, this means that “people who adopt an insomnia identity account for virtually the entirety of the treated and untreated population of people with insomnia”, which could result in many people receiving unnecessary or incorrect treatment for sleep concerns.
“Between 36 and 39% of people treated for insomnia have been prescribed hypnotics and exposed to hypnotic side effects,” writes Lichstein, “when sleep was already good.
“There may be many people out there suffering because of their insomnia identity rather than an actual lack of sleep.”