New study shows that what you call yourself has a surprising effect on your health.

Staff Writer

What’s the worst thing about being an insomniac? Believe it or not it’s the sentence: “I’m an insomniac.” That’s the counterintuitive result of new research by Kenneth Lichstein, professor of psychology at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Lichstein, who’s been studying sleep (and lack thereof) for 30 years, reviewed 12 sleep studies. He discovered that something he calls “insomnia identity” has a number of negative effects on people’s mood and health–even if they are in fact getting plenty of sleep.

“We can independently assess people’s view of their sleep and their sleep,” he notes, and in his research, he did just that. Not surprisingly, he found that people who reported themselves as insomniacs suffered a variety of ill effects well known to be associated with insufficient sleep, including suicidal thoughts, anxiety, fatigue, and even high blood pressure. What is surprising, though, is that people who called themselves insomniacs suffered these negative effects even when sleep measurement showed they were in fact getting plenty of sleep, what Lichstein calls “complaining good sleepers.” Conversely, people who believe that they aren’t insomniacs had fewer negative effects–even if they were in fact having trouble sleeping, what Lichstein calls “non-complaining bad sleepers.” (About 25 percent of us have an incorrect view of our own sleep patterns, he says.)

This is all pretty funny, but there’s an important message here that isn’t funny at all. We all know that lack of sleep is incredibly bad for our health. So it’s striking that worrying about not getting enough sleep is even worse for our health than that. But it makes perfect sense to Lichstein. “Insomnia identity drives worry and worry is the fuel of stress,” he explains. “That stress has physical effects on our life.”

What should an insomniac do?

What does all of this mean to you if you are an insomniac? Your first job is to try to stop thinking of yourself that way. “Research supports the conclusion that there is a cost to pathologizing sleep,” Lichstein writes. It’s certainly easy to get into a downward spiral where you lie awake at night getting more and more upset over the fact that you can’t seem to fall asleep–I’ve done it many times myself. So look for ways to break that pattern.

1. Stop worrying about tomorrow.

For me, the biggest worry about insomnia is my fear that I’ll be miserable and unproductive the following day. So it’s helpful to know that isn’t necessarily true–stop worrying about the bad effects tomorrow and there may not be any. “There are clearly people with poor sleep who are relaxed about it,”Lichstein says. They are at low risk for impaired functioning.”

2. Act as though you had a good sleep.

Another tactic you can try is to trick your brain into thinking you had a decent night’s sleep by following your usual morning routine with the same energy that you would on a good sleep. For example, if you tend to skip your morning exercise routine on days when you’ve slept badly, try doing it anyway. And it’s probably smart to get up at your usual time instead of hitting the snooze alarm or giving yourself an extra half hour to make up for your bad night’s sleep.

3. Treat it like an incident, not a problem.

So you had a bad night’s sleep. Rather than think of this as a chronic, ongoing problem that you have to struggle with every night, just think of it as one bad night. Perhaps your sleepless night was caused by something you ate before bed, or watching a disturbing program on TV late at night, or some situation at work or at home causing you stress. There’s no reason to assume that just because you had a hard time sleeping last night, you’ll have a hard time again tonight.

4. Don’t call yourself an insomniac.

Whatever you do, don’t give yourself a label that is in itself bad for your health. You’re a person who had trouble sleeping one night. Maybe you’re a person who has trouble sleeping from time to time. Maybe it’s more often than that. But that still doesn’t make you an insomniac, which is in fact a medical condition that should be diagnosed by a doctor. It’s worth noting that, according to the National Institutes of Health, chronic insomnia (lasting more than a few weeks) is nearly always caused by a different primary problem, such as a medication or other health problem.

So next time you’re tempted to call yourself an insomniac, don’t do it. Tell yourself that you’re not one. You may find that one change alone makes it easier to fall asleep.