Mental health

CBT for Insomnia

CBT for insomnia tips

Sleep – so important to have, yet sometimes so hard to get (find out more in What Is… Sleep).  Whether it’s depression where you’re exhausted but can’t sleep or mania where you have too much energy to feel the need for sleep, insomnia is something that spans across diagnoses.  

For many of us, medications are important to get a decent night of sleep, but there are a variety of other measures that can be tried. A key non-medication strategy is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) specifically targeting insomnia.  CBT for insomnia (CBT-I) focuses more on the behavioural aspect than the cognitive.  Here is an overview of some of the main elements of CBT-I:

Sleep hygiene

Most of us are familiar with recommendations like avoid caffeine/alcohol/screen time before bed, don’t nap during the day, and get regular exercise; you can read about my sleep hygiene here.

Do a sleep log

While you may think you’re aware of your sleep patterns, chances are keeping a log will give a better understanding. There’s a good example in the treatment manual that’s linked to below.

Increase sleep efficiency

Sleep efficiency is the ratio of time asleep divided by time in bed; to increase sleep efficiency, the initial goal is to spend less time in bed.  Initially, this may mean less sleep, but in the longer term, it will result in an improvement.

Increase sleep drive

The drive to sleep comes from an accumulation of tiredness during the day. Napping during the day cancels out some of this accumulated sleep drive, making it harder to get to sleep at night.

Avoid negative associations with bed

Staying in bed awake for long periods can lead to the bed being associated with being awake and frustrated.  This can be changed by going to bed onlywhen sleepy, only using the bed for sleep/sex, getting out of bed if you haven’t fallen asleep after about 15 minutes, and hiding the clock.

Wake up at a regular time

This is essential in CBT-I, and is counterintuitive in many ways.  The idea is to get up at the same time regardless of how long or how well you slept. Getting up at a set time should happen even if it means disrupting a sound sleep.  A consistent bedtime isn’t encouraged, as going to bed before you’re tired can mean more time awake in bed. Waking up at the same time every morning gets your sleep drive started at a consistent time each day.

Challenge thoughts related to sleep

Some common sleep-related myths, according to the University of Washington’s treatment manual, are:

  • I need 8 hours of sleep to survive
  • If I don’t get a good night’s sleep, then … (something bad will happen)
  • If I’m having trouble sleeping, I need to try harder
  • If I have a bad night of sleep I should try to catch up on sleep later

Thought patterns like these increase the level of anxiety around sleep and can push you into behaviours that actually worsen sleep.


While trying to increase sleep efficiency may feel like the opposite of what you should do, insomnia treatment guidelines consistently recommend CBT-I as on one of the most important and effective treatment measures.

CBT-i Coach app for insomnia

The CBT-I Coach app from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has some useful tools and trackers to apply this information.

The info in this post is based on the CBT for insomnia treatment manual available from the University of Washington.  More information is also available on the Society of Clinical Psychology website.

Sleep Better: The Little Book of Sleep from Mental Health @ Home

Sleep Better: The Little Book of Sleep is a mini-ebook that covers a range of strategies, both medical and non-medical, to give you the tools you need to get the best sleep you can.  It’s available from the MH@H Store.

15 thoughts on “CBT for Insomnia”

  1. Good points.

    I find Shav asana…a yoga move is so much fun to do and always puts me to sleep. Also chanting OM NAMAH SHIVAYA works like a charm. I was able to shake off my sleep meds 8 months ago. One less med. 4 more to go!! 🙂 thank you for writing Ashley. You be fine. Hugs.

  2. My worst fear is getting a headache from not sleeping well. But, I think in the past it wasn’t just sleep but poor water and food hygiene that would contribute to a minor headache turning into a full-on migraine.

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