As a leading insomnia psychologist with over a decade of experience, we can't think of anyone better to ask our sleep questions to than Dr. Courtney Bancroft. With a focus on improving sleep naturally, Dr. Bancroft shares our stance on holistic well-being, and we sat down to hear all about her journey.
Can you share your journey with us? What has your path looked like, and what inspired you to become a clinical psychologist?
The path that led me to be a clinical psychologist was a bit of a winding one, but one that began early in high school. During my junior year a program called “Natural Helpers” was implemented and each student in school was given a question along the lines of “Write down the name of a person you feel you could trust, if you had a problem that you needed to talk about." The person most identified by their classmates was then chosen to be the “Natural Helper," and was given a weekend-long immersive training to be a peer support counselor. I was shocked when I learned that I had been chosen by my peers, but once I understood the gravity of that nomination, I took the role and training seriously, and quite enjoyed being there for others during tough times.
Once I went off to college, I had planned to study Art History -- I loved the mystery of looking at a painting and then doing detective work to piece together and analyze so many different parts of the painting to understand the artist and the period, but my parents were less enthusiastic about the potential that had to be a sustainable career. I thought about a degree in business, but then went back to my dorm room where I had 3 messages on AIM from various friends who were going through difficult times adjusting to their colleges and looking for someone to talk to. It was then that I realized that psychology might be a good fit for me, since it had some parallels to the type of thinking I loved about Art History, but also because of the natural pull that I had for helping others.
Why sleep? What drew you to choose this area as the focus of your practice?
Once I became immersed in the decade long journey of becoming a clinical psychologist, there were a few things that really stuck with me throughout my training. I became interested in the systems that we learn within and how they can contribute to health disparities in certain groups and ended up specializing in substance use treatment throughout my training. During my postdoc, I worked as a substance use specialist in Primary Care and that’s where I was trained in CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia). I fell in love with this treatment, not only because of how quickly and effectively it helped people, but also because of the way in which it allowed individuals to be free of medications that they found to have negative side effects, and to be able to sleep on their own. It taught life-long skills, and was able to reverse years of insomnia in just 6 weeks. It really impressed me.
So when I finally received my license, I decided that I would open a private practice and realized that sleep treatment was something many people needed. I started my practice in May of 2016 while working a full-time job at a hospital as a Primary Care Psychologist and Director of a postdoctoral fellowship. I am living the dream as far as being able to work in my passion areas and help others, and am very grateful for the opportunity.
What are some issues you often see related to sleep? Is it falling asleep, staying asleep, a combination of both?
I see a variety of these presentations, but I would say that falling asleep is a slightly bigger concern for people. I also see individuals who have experienced a frightening block of time where they felt they lost control of their ability to sleep. Many times, it’s during a time of stress or change in their lives, but it's the experience of the loss of sleep that causes panic and fear. This compounding of stress and sleep anxiety is what often leads to chronic insomnia patterns.
What’s one of the biggest myths?
One of the biggest myths about sleep is that everyone needs 8 hours. The correct way to interpret that number from the literature is that it is an average. Some people need 7, some need 7.25, some feel best with 9... But 8 hours is an average. The amount of sleep you need is similar to the amount of calories you need on any given day. It varies based on your biological predispositions for your cycling patterns (how long it takes you to get through each of the sleep stages), your activity levels (if you climbed Everest vs binge-watched Netflix), how much you slept the night before, stress levels, time of year, and your immune system (during times of illness you'll need more rest).
Why is sleep so important?
So many reasons! What I’ve realized in doing this work is that our sleep is a measure of our general wellness. A good night’s sleep can help to produce cytokines which can protect and regulate our immune response, can help reduce risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, obesity, and even early mortality. We also are finding out more and more about the long term effects of not sleeping well, which has been linked to Alzheimers, Depression, and even higher suicide risk. When it comes to mood specifically, depression and anxiety can be linked to even one poor night’s sleep. Many people who aren’t sleeping well also feel they have to cancel activities and social gatherings because of a lack of energy, which can lead to further dissatisfaction with quality of life and mood issues.
Your treatment has an all-natural, holistic focus -- can you talk a little bit more about this and what it means to you?
So much of what I do in Health Psychology is understand the person in the context of the larger medical system. To me, there is nothing more freeing than to be able to help someone heal themselves, and learn tools to free themselves of the expensive or burdening grip of medication. I often think of it as an “undoing” of what the medical system has done to us around sleep, which is to problematize and diagnose sleep issues, and then give a pill to fix it. I’m a big believer in modern medicine and think it can be helpful in many ways, but it can also be harmful if we don't take the time to think about how we can do better. Many medications that help treat sleep are either meant to be utilized for the short term (no longer than 3 months), or are medications that are approved for other things but happen to knock you out (anti-anxiety medications, anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, even antihistamines!).
What does your evening routine look like?
I often have about a 45 minute window of unwinding that might look different depending on the day and what I feel I need. In the winter it might include a cozy tea, a heating pad, or a warm blanket and some candles. In the summer, it might include dimming the lights and using a weighted blanket on the couch while watching some funny re-runs. Either way it is a sacred time during which I help cue my brain that it’s time to wind-down without mentally taxing activities, programs, emails, phone use, etc. Then when I feel sleepy, I transition to my bedroom (which I’ve made very cozy), turn on the bedside lamp, and spray some lavender pillow spray prior to turning out the lights. It’s a routine that is cozy, comfortable, and flexible! It’s something I look forward to each night.
Who or what is inspiring you right now?
I love the poetry of Cleo Wade, the work of Gabrielle Bernstein, and Taryn Toomey, the creator of “The Class." I'm also inspired by Matthew Walker who is the Founder and Director of the Center for Human Sleep Science and has been a pioneer of studying the way people sleep. He has a wonderful book Why We Sleep that covers a lot of this research, and a TED talk called “Sleep is Your Superpower." I love to read books about business and marketing as well and am currently reading “Ten-Day MBA” by Steven A Silbiger.
What advice do you have for those looking to find better rest?
You have the power within you! I find this to be so encouraging. One of my patients once referred to me as “relentlessly optimistic” when it comes to sleep and I think that I am that way because I have seen the power of CBT-I, and the power we have to change our stories around sleep. It can be done on your own, but many times people find the support of a trained professional via a short 6 week “CBT-I course” (as I often refer to it as) very helpful.
Learn more about Dr. Bancroft's practice here!