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The best therapy for insomniacs? Getting things done

About 10 to 13 per cent of people meet the clinical criteria for insomnia, generally defined as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep on at least three nights per week, for at least three months.


The other day, I received an e-mail with the subject heading "insomniac baking." A co-worker was urging everyone to scarf down the homemade brownies and salted caramel bars she had made in the wee hours. "When I can't sleep, I bake," she wrote.

Another co-worker replied that she, too, was often up with insomnia, but, instead of cooking, she spent money online. "That's how we ended up with a massive camping trailer," she confessed.

As it turns out, involuntary night owls get up to all kinds of things: whittling, playing obscure musical instruments, working on colouring books, designing tattoos.

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While her husband and two kids snooze away, Meredith Gordon calls friends in different time zones, plans family vacations and teaches herself skills such as how to play the video game Minecraft. The Los Angeles-based writer, who blogs at, said sleepless nights are her chance to squeeze in "me time." Now that she has discovered the upside of insomnia, "I'm not as begrudging about it," she said.

Like Gordon, members of the can't-get-no-shuteye club are trying new hobbies and getting chores done well into the night. In the process, they have stumbled upon one of the top recommendations sleep experts now give their patients.

The best treatment for chronic insomnia is a form of cognitive behavioural therapy designed specifically for insomnia (CBT-I), said Dr. Judith Davidson, a psychologist and sleep researcher at Queen's University. This approach "does involve getting up and doing things that you want to do, rather than staying in bed."

Restricting time in bed when you are not asleep is a first step in recovery, Davidson said. She encourages people to try activities they might enjoy at night other than watching TV, which may be too stimulating. Patients in her CBT-I group have experimented with crossword puzzles, writing projects, sculpting and cooking. "I have heard of people listening to sermons," she said.

Studies have shown that CBT-I is more effective than medications in treating insomnia over the long term, with no risk of drug side effects. In CBT-I, patients meet weekly with a clinician to modify their sleep habits and change their expectations, thoughts and feelings about sleep. Over time, CBT-I helps calm patients' racing thoughts and reverse erratic sleep-wake patterns, Davidson said.

Insomnia is different from disturbed sleep, which may be exacerbated by excess screen time at night, said Dr. Charles Morin, Canada Research Chair on Sleeping Disorders and a professor at Laval University in Quebec City.

And, contrary to popular belief, insomnia is not on the rise. About 10 to 13 per cent of people meet the clinical criteria for insomnia, generally defined as difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep on at least three nights per week, for at least three months. Over the past 20 years, insomnia rates remain "fairly similar over time and in different countries," Morin said.

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What's changed is that insomnia is no longer a torturous secret. Insomniacs are tweeting at all hours to see who else is up. They're trading tips on sites such as the Insomnia Support Group on Facebook, which has more than 5,300 members. They're posting about whether a slew of snooze-inducing podcasts – such as Drew Ackerman's Sleep With Me and Miette's Bedtime Story Podcast – live up to their promise. Many have a rich, albeit sleep-deprived, nocturnal life.

Jeremy Peter Green, a lawyer in Washington, has not tried CBT-I, but he makes a habit of going for long walks or drawing cartoons when he can't sleep. Green has Tourette's syndrome, a neurological condition that makes him restless several nights a week. When his muscles start to contract and his eyes blink involuntarily, "it just becomes impossible to even think about sleeping."

As a student, he would walk to the law school after midnight and draw cartoon animals on the whiteboards for his classmates to see in the morning. He graduated two years ago, and now publishes his cartoons at With more nights of practice, he said, "hopefully, the artwork will catch up with the word play."

Lianne Jones, an elementary school teacher in Calgary, says she washes and folds clothing and sheets well past midnight to keep up with all the laundry that comes with having four kids.

A few years ago, she completed most of her assignments for an online master of education degree in the middle of the night. If she could redo her undergrad degree, she said, "that's how I would do it."

Making peace with a shorter night's sleep is important for insomniac patients who insist they need eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night to function the next day, Morin said. "Some people may get by very well with six, or six and a half."

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He added that a major feature of insomnia is "a fear of not sleeping and a fear of what will happen the next day." In CBT-I, therapists encourage patients to go about their usual business, no matter how little sleep they had, "to change their perception that they've become invalid after a poor night's sleep."

At my office, no one would question the insomniac baker's ability to function. She is a seasoned reporter whose journalistic standards are as high as ever. The only clue that she is going through a bout of insomnia is a large container of baked goods. It never stays full for long.

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