A woman sleeping in bedAs many as 20% of adults experience short-term insomnia, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. Why is insomnia so prevalent? Research from the Sleep Disorders and Research Center at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit finds that the way people respond to stress can be a mediating factor between stress and insomnia. This is the first study to find that specific coping behaviors for stress can lead to insomnia.

Data came from a community-based sample of 2,892 “good sleepers” who had no history of insomnia. At the beginning of the study, the participants reported on stressful life events they experienced in the last year, including divorce, serious illness, and major financial problems. They rated the perceived severity of each event and the event’s duration. The participants completed questionnaires about coping mechanisms they used to deal with stress. A year after the initial assessment, the researchers followed up with the participants to identify how many experienced insomnia at least three times per week for a month or more.

The researchers found four coping methods that were mediating factors between stress and insomnia:

  • Behavioral disengagement (giving up on dealing with stressors).

  • Substance use (using drugs or alcohol).

  • Self-distraction (watching television or going to the movies).

  • Cognitive intrusion (having recurring thoughts about the stressor).

Each of these coping mechanisms was linked to the development of insomnia in participants. Cognitive intrusion had the most significant effect, accounting for 69% of the impact of stress on insomnia.

“Our study is among the first to show that it’s not the number of stressors, but your reaction to them that determines the likelihood of experiencing insomnia. While a stressful event can lead to a bad night of sleep, it’s what you do in response to the stress that can be the difference between a few bad nights and chronic insomnia,” explained lead author Vivek Pillai, research fellow at the Sleep Disorders & Research Center.

What alternatives are available for people dealing with stress? Mindfulness-based therapies, according to the report, show promise for limiting cognitive intrusion and improving sleep. The findings underscore the importance of seeking help for dealing with immensely stressful life events.

This research is published in the journal Sleep.

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