The Wall Street Journal today had a very interesting article about how people with insomnia tend to greatly underestimate how much sleep they get and overestimate how long it takes them to fall asleep. They also overestimate how often they wake up at night.
Roughly 30% of adults have some insomnia each year. About 10% of people have chronic insomnia which means that you have trouble sleeping three times a week or more. According to the Journal article, 42% of insomniacs who actually slept the normal amount (6 hours or more) underestimated how much they slept by more than an hour. I looked up the research article which was published in Psychosomatic Medicine. According to this research, insomniacs who slept six hours or more typically showed a profile of high depression and anxiety and low coping skills according to psychological testing.
What’s also interesting is that even though insomniacs may be sleeping six or more hours a night, there does appear to be some real differences in their brainwave activity compared to good sleepers. Even though they are asleep, their brains are more active, which may account for why they perceive their sleep to be less than it really is.
Another interesting factoid was that normal people tend to overestimate how much sleep they get. Most people when asked how much sleep they get will answer between seven and eight hours, but they are actually getting six hours. That’s why people tend to be so sleep deprived. For most people six hours is not enough sleep to feel really good.
So what’s the answer to this sleep estimating dilemma? It turns out there is a very simple answer. The two gold standards for measuring sleep are brainwave measurements and activity measurements. While brainwave measurements are difficult to come by in the home, activity measurements are very easy and inexpensive to obtain. Many of the current fitness tracker’s have a sleep tracking function. For instance, according to my Xiaomi Mi Band, which cost me the grand sum of $15, last night I was in bed for seven hours and 58 minutes, and got three hours 20 minutes of deep sleep and four hours and 38 minutes of light sleep. I was awake for one minute. (Yes, I know, please don’t hate me all you insomniacs!)
For insomniacs who worry about how much sleep they are getting, I recommend buying a fitness tracker and wearing it every night. The best ones automatically track sleep without having the requirement that you push a button to activate sleep mode. This is pretty important as most people forget to press the button. I have been pretty happy with my Xiaomi Mi Band, which you can buy directly from the company but I’m sure there are other brands of fitness trackers which offer similar features.
Also, as I’ve written about previously here and here, cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) may also improve the quality of sleep as well as the quantity. Some studies show that CBT-I improves people’s ability to accurately estimate their sleep time, and it also may calm the over-activity of the brain that occurs when insomniacs sleep.
So here’s the executive summary for all of you sleep-deprived folks:
1. If you are an insomniac who is anxious and depressed, then you are probably getting more sleep than you think. Buy a fitness tracker with a good sleep tracking function, and you will see how much sleep you are actually getting.
2. If you want to improve the quality of your sleep, either practice meditation or see a CBT psychologist for CBT-I, as both of these interventions seem to lower the activity of the brain during sleep, which will improve your perception of your own sleep.
3. If you consistently feel anxious or depressed, consider getting some cognitive behavioral therapy for these problems, as they may contribute to sleep difficulties.
I’m off to bed now and hope I don’t have insomnia now that I’ve written about it!
Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.