The Best Remedy for Insomnia Is the One You Haven’t Tried
Most people do exactly the wrong thing during a bout of sleepless nights
Stress and worry are major insomnia triggers, and so it’s hardly a surprise that the pandemic has set off a wave of lost sleep. Earlier this year, research in the journal Sleep Medicine found that the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 caused a 37% jump in the incidence of clinical insomnia.
Even before the pandemic, insomnia was commonplace. Each year, about one in four adults develops acute insomnia, which is defined as a problem falling asleep or staying asleep a few nights a week for a period of at least two weeks. That’s according to a 2020 study in the journal Sleep.
Fortunately, that study found that most people — roughly 75% — recover from these periods of short-term insomnia. But for others, the problem persists for months or years. “A bad night of sleep can be a one-and-done, it can be a couple of nights for a couple of weeks, or it can turn into a chronic problem,” says Michael Perlis, PhD, first author of the Sleep study and director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
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One of the reasons that acute insomnia turns into chronic insomnia, Perlis says, has to do with a common mistake people make after a night or two of poor sleep. Even among those who have struggled for years with insomnia, many continue to employ this same counterproductive strategy — a strategy that is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how sleep works. On the other hand, Perlis says that one of the very best remedies for insomnia is also one of the simplest, and it works because it prevents people from making that mistake.
“Do nothing. That’s what I tell people who’ve had a bad night of sleep, or two or three,” he says. “But it’s the hardest nothing you’ll ever do. And I’ll explain why.”