Intensive Sleep Retraining: A Self-help Perspective

Intensive sleep retraining (ISR) has recently been in the news, and for good reason.  This technique shows significant promise for rapidly improving sleep in chronic insomniacs.  But ISR requires a minimum of 25 straight hours hooked up to an EEG in a sleep lab.  For those of us who don’t want or can’t afford that, ISR still delivers a meaningful lesson about what’s behind the process of falling asleep.

There is some variability in the way ISR is practiced, but generally the procedure requires individuals to undergo 25 consecutive hours in a sleep lab, connected to an electroencephalograph that measures brain activity — specifically sleeping.

During these 25 hours, the subject is immediately awakened after 3 consecutive minutes of any stage of sleep activity as measured by the EEG.  This understandably builds up an acute level of sleep deprivation, so even the most chronic insomniacs generally experience dozens of sleep onsets during the 25-hour session.  By repeatedly experiencing many sleep onsets in a compressed time frame, the recipient by association quickly relearns what the experience of falling asleep feels like.

Studies show ISR works to rapidly improve the ability of insomniacs to fall asleep and also helps increase total sleep time.  But this intensive technique is probably out of reach for the majority of us who just want to learn how to sleep better on our own.

So if the majority of us will never have the opportunity to benefit from an intensive ISR session, what can we learn from this technique about the process of falling asleep?

Plenty.  First, we can learn that there is an identifiable process, and it is generally consistent night after night.  We can learn to trust and rely on this process to lead us consistently into satisfying sleep.

We can describe this process generally as a feeling of letting go, of letting one’s thought’s wander, of physical relaxation.  The process of falling asleep cannot be forced in any way; that is often counterproductive and only leads to a state of heightened and worried wakefulness.  So instead of forcing the process, what we can do is enable the process.

We can enable and enhance the process of falling asleep by providing consistent cues, both physical and mental.  This can take the form of a consistent sleep schedule, going to bed and getting up at roughly the same time every day.  Another strong cue can be a relaxing normal routine before bed.  Over time we learn to associate our consistent routines with an expectation of sleep and the good feeling of letting go.

If you have been bothered by sleeping problems, ISR suggests thinking back on what the experience was like last time you slept well.  That is the good feeling to dwell on.  You don’t need to necessarily try to recreate that exact same experience night after night; rather just let yourself go in the same way you did when you slept well.  When you find a routine that works, and over time you will, stay with it and your sleep system will eventually grow stronger.

Methods that combine physical and mental processes to support good sleep are one component of cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), and it works.  You can learn CBT-I from many sources — counselors, sleep doctors, books, and online self-help programs.

If you are interested in an online CBT-based solution for better sleep, we encourage you to check out the Sleep Training System.  The STS is a downloadable self-help program that provides clear and easy-to-follow methods to permanently improve your sleep naturally, without the need for drugs or artificial sleep aids of any kind.

Explore posts in the same categories: Health, Insomnia, sleep

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3 Comments on “Intensive Sleep Retraining: A Self-help Perspective”


  1. […] clinics sometime use to address this specific issue, and it apparently works. It’s known as Intensive  Sleep Retraining (ISR), but it’s probably unlikely many of us would ever use […]


  2. […] another  method that has been proven effective but is probably out of the reach for most of us is intensive sleep retraining.  This method typically requires a minimum of 25 straight hours in a sleep lab, but rapidly […]


  3. […] of relearning how to fall asleep has some merit.  A significant body of research has shown that intensive sleep retraining (ISR) works, and […]


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