Keep pain from stealing your sleep

If you suffer from chronic pain you probably also struggle to get a good night’s sleep. The two problems tend to go hand in hand.

They also create a vicious cycle: The more pain you have, the harder it is to sleep. And the less sleep you get, the harder it is to handle your pain.

But what if there was a way to conquer both problems at once and end this uncomfortable cycle for good?

Researchers believe there is… and it’s not a dangerous drug or even some exotic herb or supplement. It’s a form of mind training that’s proven to work just as well for sleep problems as it is for pain problems — cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

You’ve heard “walk it off,” but “talk it off?”

Cognitive behavioral therapy is talk therapy, usually done with a therapist that helps you become aware of how your negative thoughts are contributing to challenging situations in your life. Why is it so helpful for pain and sleep problems?

Well, because negative thoughts aggravate pain and sleeplessness for chronic pain sufferers.

For example, if you’re a chronic pain sufferer, you might have a thought like, “I won’t be able to cope with my pain if I don’t sleep well.” This puts more pressure on you to fall asleep, and ultimately becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy — the added pressure prevents you from sleeping, and the lack of sleep makes coping with you pain more difficult.

In fact, researchers from the University of Warwick in England recently confirmed that thoughts like these can really set you up for worse sleep and more pain. These researchers observed thought patterns among people with chronic pain and sleeplessness. And here’s what they found…

People who believe they won’t be able to sleep because of their pain are more likely to suffer from insomnia — and ultimately worse pain. But, after participating in a short course on cognitive behavior therapy for pain and insomnia, these people were able to get rid of their insomnia and significantly reduce the amount of pain they experienced. It’s a true testament to the power of your thoughts…

“Thoughts can have a direct and/or indirect impact on our emotion, behavior and even physiology. The way we think about sleep and its interaction with pain can influence how we cope with pain and manage sleeplessness. Based on clinical experience, whilst some of these beliefs are healthy and useful, others are rigid and misinformed,” said the study’s senior author Dr. Nicole Tang.

Techniques for at-home CBT

Now, if you’re stuck in the vicious cycle of pain and sleeplessness, you can go see a therapist to start your cognitive-behavioral therapy. Or you can save some time and money and try a few techniques at home first, like:

  • Experimenting with different thoughts. One night, try thinking your usual thought (i.e. “I won’t be able to cope with my pain if I don’t sleep well”), and the next night try flipping it around (i.e. I’ll cope with my pain just fine regardless of how I sleep”). See which night you sleep better.
  • Challenging the validity of your thoughts. Take a thought (like “I won’t be able to cope with my pain if I don’t sleep well”) and consider the evidence for and against it. For example, you know not sleeping may make your pain worse. But you also know that you’ve had many nights where you haven’t slept, and you’ve always managed to cope and get through them. Once you look at the evidence on both sides, create a more balanced thought like, “If I don’t sleep, I’ll be tired. But I’ll manage to get through the day. I always do.”
  • Scheduling pleasant activities. Take a piece of paper and write down the next seven days. Beneath each day, write down a specific time you will set aside for a pleasant activity. It doesn’t have to be long… it can just be ten minutes to read a book or listen your favorite song. By doing activities you enjoy, you’ll create positive emotions that will make it easier to think positively in other areas of your life too.

Editor’s note: I have so much respect for Dr. Mark Wiley. He became disillusioned with mainstream medicine’s failure to help his own chronic pain and embarked on a personal journey to find relief. This led him to become one of the leading authorities in the field. Recently he collected all he has learned about relieving pain into a single book titled “Conquering the Pain.” It contains a wealth of information to help you conquer pain — without drugs. Get your copy today.

  1. F. Afolalu, et al. “Development of the Pain-Related Beliefs and Attitudes about Sleep (PBAS) Scale for the Assessment and Treatment of Insomnia Comorbid with Chronic Pain.” Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 2016; 12 (09): 1269.
  2. “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques That Work.” Psychology Today.


Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine,, and