How distorted thinking fuels insomnia

Q:  I have battled insomnia for the past 12 years.  In college I would often go weeks with no sleep.  Today, I can’t sleep through the night without taking anti-anxiety medication.  The idea of being addicted only adds to my depression and anxiety about sleep.  In bed I think “if I don’t fall asleep right now, I won’t be able to perform tomorrow.  I’ll get fired from my job, and then won’t be able to pay my bills, or fulfill my dreams … so what’s the point of going on?”  I hate suffering like this.  What can I do?

A:  To permanently treat insomnia, you’ve got to get to the true root of the problem.  And it’s not sleep, or the lack thereof.  Insomnia is invariably only a symptom of something else going on deeper that’s causing the problem.  In your case, it could be excessive and unrelenting anxiety, along with stress about the idea of sleep.

Not to be disrespectful or minimize what you’re experiencing, but your question expresses at least two very common misconceptions about sleep.  So part of your solution is to understand why these thoughts are distorted, unrealistic, and excessively negative.

For instance, consider your statement that “I would often go weeks with no sleep.”  Well congratulations, you are now the new record holder.  The longest documented time for no sleep is 11 days, by Randy Gardner.  (He recovered completely by the way).

Your reality is no doubt far different than your mistaken belief.  In fact, it’s quite common for insomniacs to significantly underestimate when and how long they actually sleep, a phenomenon known as sleep state misperception.

In reality, you do sleep, and probably at least some every night.  That’s because we all sleep.  You in fact cannot not sleep, unless you have reason to believe you are somehow different than any other human being to ever live anywhere anytime.

Second, your thought process of “what’s the point of all this” — although understandable when feeling dead tired in the middle of the night and unable to sleep — is classic catastrophizing.  It is a distortion of rational thought.  Your reality is probably not that much different from most everyone else’s —  you have some successes and some failures.  You’re human, not perfect.  In reality, you are probably like most people who adjust and perform reasonably well even when sleep deprived.  Allowing yourself to dwell on the worst is likely a major part of what’s fueling your insomnia.

The good news is there are effective drug-free ways to make this better.  Many have done it, and you can too.

The standard of care for treating insomnia is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), specifically designed for sleep improvement.  CBT methods are permanent and help most people who try them.  These methods include potent non-pharmacological techniques to help manage the negative thoughts that feed insomnia, in addition to improving habits and lifestyles that support better sleep.

Since you have been prescribed anti-anxiety medication, it’s important to work with your doctor on treating your anxiety, but we suggest it’s also important to consider healthy non-drug ways you can sleep better based on CBT methods.

These methods may be part of your permanent solution to eventually taper and even eliminate the need for drugs to sleep.

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

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2 Comments on “How distorted thinking fuels insomnia”


  1. […] One of the great accomplishments in cognitive psychology over the past several decades is arguably defining recognizable categories of thought distortions by psychiatrists Aaron Beck and David Burns.  Distortions of rational thought are often at the root of many psychiatric disorders like depression and generalized anxiety disorder.  Similarly, negative and often inaccurate thoughts specifically about sleep also tend to fuel and perpetuate insomnia. […]


  2. […] Distortions of rational thought are often at the root of many psychiatric disorders like depression and generalized anxiety disorder, both of which are correlated with insomnia.  Similarly, negative and often inaccurate thoughts specifically about sleep also tend to fuel and perpetuate insomnia. […]


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