Now that you’ve learned some of the basics about sleep, let’s take a look at some common myths about sleep that may be contributing to your sleep problems.

MYTH 1: Spending more time in bed at night will give me a better chance of falling asleep.

Actually, the opposite is true. The longer you spend in bed without sleeping, the more your mind and body will associate your wakeful state with your bed, thus making it harder for you to fall asleep. So instead of feeling more relaxed and sleepy when you get into bed each night, you’re actually conditioning yourself to think of the bed as a place where you don’t get good sleep. This simply leads to more frustration.

MYTH 2: I need at least eight hours of sleep each night to be healthy.

This is not necessarily true, but it’s easy to see why you may believe this. The media often misinterprets research data, or reports on only one finding of a study. Many different factors affect your health, and blaming lack of sleep as the sole culprit in poor health isn’t medically sound. Although I do want to emphasize the importance of getting enough sleep, there’s no “golden number” of hours of sleep that everyone must achieve each night in order to be healthy, both physically and mentally. As mentioned, the number of hours of sleep needed each night varies widely among people. The best indication of whether you’re getting enough sleep is how you feel and perform during the day.
I remember one forty-three-year-old healthy woman who told me, “Ever since I was about twenty, I’ve slept around six hours per night and felt perfectly fine. I have plenty of energy during the day, and I’m doing very well at my demanding job. But now I’m always reading in the papers about how I should get at least eight hours of sleep at night. I don’t want my health to be affected.” In response, she started spending more time in bed at night, hoping that she’d get sleepy, but it just didn’t happen. Luckily, she came to see me early enough that she avoided reinforcing a bad sleep habit that could have developed into a chronic sleep problem. Through education alone, she left my office feeling better and realizing that she didn’t actually have a sleep problem.

MYTH 3: A little nap during the day won’t affect my sleep at night.

This is false. As mentioned before, everyone has individual sleep time requirements. Sleep is accumulated across a twenty-four-hour period, not just at night. So if you typically need seven hours of sleep at night to feel rested and well the next day, taking a one-hour nap during the day can reduce the amount you need that night to only six hours.
By the same token, if you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep at night, it’s important not to nap during the day, as you’ll only worsen your problems at night. Falling asleep is dependent on how sleepy you are and how many hours you’ve been awake prior to bedtime. If you nap during the day, it can affect both of these factors. The ability to fall asleep is also affected by social cues and your circadian rhythm (a roughly twenty-four-hour cycle of physiological, biochemical, and behavioral processes that are internally generated, but can be influenced by external factors).

MYTH 4: Insomnia only happens to people who are anxious or depressed.

This is not true. Although depression or anxiety can certainly cause insomnia, so can plenty of other things. I’ll cover this topic in greater detail in later chapters, so for now, please just be aware that insomnia can be caused by medical problems, other sleep disorders, medication side effects, poor sleep hygiene, and psychiatric disorders other than depression and anxiety. It can also exist on its own, as the only complaint that a person has. Although in the past sleep specialists and doctors were trained to believe that insomnia was always a symptom of something else, new research seems to indicate that this may not always be the case (Edinger et al. 2008; Richardson 2007; Mai and Buysse 2008). In other words, at times insomnia can occur on its own, entirely unrelated to psychiatric or medical disorders.

MYTH 5: A few drinks before bed help me sleep better at night.

This is false. Although you may initially feel drowsy after drinking alcohol and find that you fall asleep more easily, alcohol can actually disrupt your sleep architecture and cause your sleep to be less restorative. You may end up tossing and turning in the latter parts of the night, or you may have to make a few extra trips to the bathroom. The bottom line is that alcohol is not a good sleep aid and shouldn’t be used in this way.

MYTH 6: Watching TV in bed helps me to fall asleep at night.

This is not true. Actually, your mind becomes activated when you watch television, assuming that you’re paying attention to what you’re watching. You experience both audio and visual stimulation, neither of which is conducive to good sleep. Although you might not have had a problem with watching TV in bed in the past, you’ve chosen to read this book because you want to improve your sleep. So you should watch TV in another room, not while lying in bed.

MYTH 7: If I don’t get enough sleep during the week, I can always catch up on the weekends.

Do you remember thinking this when you were growing up, especially as a teenager or a college student? Unfortunately, this isn’t entirely true. Although you can sleep longer hours on the weekends and feel better on those days, this doesn’t prevent you from being sleep deprived during the week. If your daytime functioning is poor during the week because you aren’t getting enough sleep, sleeping for longer periods on the weekends will only make you feel better the following days. There is no catching up on lost sleep. Once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. It’s important to realize that you can’t burn the midnight oil, doing extra work or staying out late, and then expect to regain your lost sleep at another time. It just doesn’t work that way. But don’t despair over that thought, because this book will help you work toward getting restful sleep the majority of the time (which may require significant lifestyle changes).

I remember seeing a patient in New York who was a musician. He was in his thirties and played in bars and clubs late at night, often not going to bed until 4 or 5 a.m. He would then sleep for a few hours before having to get up and take care of things during the day, like paying bills, running errands, and seeing friends. He tried to catch up on sleep on his days off, but it didn’t work for him. He was always tired because he simply wasn’t getting enough sleep. Since he wanted to keep working as a musician and the only jobs he could find were at night, we devised a sleep schedule that allowed him to get at least seven hours of sleep daily without changing his bedtime and rising time on his days off. He felt much better with his new schedule and was also able to keep doing what he loved.

The point is, you shouldn’t restrict your sleep voluntarily with the idea that you can get it back some other time. Although everyone may occasionally have a night or two of insufficient sleep, it certainly shouldn’t become a regular habit. As mentioned before, the medical consequences of chronic sleep deprivation can be dangerous.


Excerpt from THE INSOMNIA WORKBOOK: A Comprehensive Guide to Getting the Sleep You Need (New Harbinger Publications)

Author's Bio: 

Stephanie A. Silberman, Ph.D., DABSM, is a clinical psychologist who specializes in using cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of sleep disorders, depression, and anxiety. She is a consultant for many sleep laboratories and maintains a private practice in the Fort Lauderdale area.

Foreword writer Charles M. Morin, Ph.D., is professor of psychology and director of the Sleep Research Center at the Université Laval in Quebec City. He holds a Canada Research Chair on Sleep Disorders and is past president of the Canadian Sleep Society.