The Study Of Sleep: Psychology Findings To Improve Your Rest

By: Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated June 28, 2019

Medically Reviewed By: Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

Sleep is a huge part of human existence. You might be surprised to learn that we spend about one-third of our lives either sleeping or trying to sleep. Sleep plays an important role in our physical health and is just as important as eating healthy and exercising. When it comes to sleep, psychology devotes a whole specific specialty to this activity.

Unfortunately, the hustle and bustle of today's society are causing us to get less and less sleep. This can wreak havoc on our bodies and take away many of the natural benefits of a good night's sleep that we simply take for granted. Thankfully, learning more about sleep, psychology findings regarding rest, and ways to improve your nightly patterns can be the bridge between mediocre productivity and living your best life.

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Sleep: Psychology Experts Sound Off

According to the American Psychology Association (APA), there is a special branch of the study of human behavior that deals entirely with sleep. The specialty of sleep psychology studies the following two things:

  1. The actual process of sleep
  2. Sleep disorders

Those who specialize in sleep psychology have an in-depth understanding of the following topics:

Normal vs. disordered sleep, sleep cycles, the way our sleep changes as we age, sleep regulation, sleep deprivation and its effects, monitoring and treatment of sleep disorders as well as sleep medications (and what they do to the brain).

The knowledge sleep specialists use by studying sleep psychology help them address several problems such as:

  • Insomnia
  • Narcolepsy
  • Sleep apnea
  • Sleep cycle disorders
  • Parasomnias (e., bedwetting, sleepwalking, night terrors)
  • Dependence on sleep medications

Through research and independent sleep psychology studies, much knowledge has been gained about how we rest and its importance.

Did You Know?

Some of this information is common knowledge, but most of the general public knows little about the subject. Test your understanding of sleep by counting how many of the following sleep-related tidbits you already knew.

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#1 We Are The Only Mammal That Delays Sleep.

We might have higher IQs than dogs or monkeys, but they are much "sleep smarter" than we are. Humans delay sleep, choosing to stay up even when we are tired. We pull all-nighters to study or work a double shift; we stay up late watching movies and scrolling through Facebook instead of resting. We have become the "night owls," depriving our bodies of sleep while the owls are getting enough rest. Unfortunately, sleepy psychology studies have found that a delayed sleep schedule can lead to depression, weight, gain and even increased the risk for metabolic disorders and type two diabetes.

The solution? Get a sleep routine and stick to it. You should be getting at least 7-9 hours of sleep per night, and a set bedtime is important. This way, your circadian rhythm stays as stable as possible.

#2 Lack Of Sleep Creates Negative Emotions.

There is a reason why someone who is in a bad mood is often accused of "getting up on the wrong side of the bed." Sleep psychology reports show that not getting enough sleep or getting low-quality rest can make us cranky! This is especially true for people who already struggle with moodiness or anger. Believe it or not, many people with anger management problems find that just getting more rest is one of the best ways to handle times when they are angry.

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#3 Sleep Debt Is Linked To Depression.

Sleep deprivation is linked to heart problems, sexual performance problems, and even car accidents. It's also directly connected to depression. Insomnia, or the inability to fall/stay asleep, is often listed as a symptom of depression. Recent research suggests that sleep problems may be the cause and not just the effect when it comes to mood problems.

Even if your depression isn't caused by lack of sleep, most sleep psychology experts agree that getting more rest can improve your condition. Seeking help from a certified mental health counselor is also extremely valuable. This is true for both depression and sleep issues!

#4 Lost Sleep = Weight Gained

This was a fact Rhonda recently learned after visiting her doctor for help with weight loss. Although her diet hadn't changed, she had recently gained some weight. During the exam, Rhonda's doctor asked about her sleep patterns. Rhonda explained that she hadn't been sleeping much the past few months. Deadlines at work and changes at home had impacted her rest.

Surprisingly, the doctor's orders didn't include a diet pill or meal plan but at least three days of exercise and at least 8 hours of sleep. Rhonda's physician knew that hormonal changes due to lack of sleep could cause overeating and weight gain. Although she was skeptical, the combo of exercise and more rest worked, and Rhonda lost the extra pounds she had put on in just a few months.

#5 There Is Such A Thing As A "Perfect Nap."

There has long been a debate on whether napping is good or bad for your body. Some people refer to them as "power naps," and others think sleeping in the day is just for the lazy. Leaving us to ask, what do sleep psychologists say? Well, it turns out that NASA scientists have pinpointed the perfect nap time as 26 minutes. This number came from a 1995 study that showed a 26-minute nap improved performance by 34% and alertness by 54%. Just make sure not to sleep for too much longer. A two-hour nap may feel nice, but it can mess up your sleep cycle as well as your night-time schedule.

Ways To Improve Your Rest

There are many other ways to improve your rest other than the ones included in the sleep facts above.

  • Decrease The Amount Of Coffee You Have In The Evenings. Just one cup of joe can delay your body's clock by 40 minutes.
  • Get More Sunlight During The Day. Natural sunlight helps keep your circadian rhythm healthy and provides energy as well. Sleep psychology research shows that increasing bright light exposure can not only improve the quality of your sleep once you go to bed, but also reduce the time it takes you to go to sleep by over 80 percent.
  • Exercise Every Morning. Exercise has so many benefits for the body. Improved sleep is one of them! Just make sure that you're not exercising before bedtime. You might think that evening exercise will help you sleep. After all, a good run can 'wear you out,' but it is more likely that exercise will give you a boost of energy that can delay your sleep.

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  • Skip The Sleep Aids And Opt For Melatonin. The pharmacy aisles are covered with over-the-counter sleep aid options. Many people even resort to prescription meds so they can sleep soundly. Unfortunately, these medications just lead to bigger problems like dependency.

One safe, natural alternative to taking sleep aids is to take a melatonin supplement. Melatonin is a hormone secreted by the pineal gland that sleep psychology experts believe the quality of sleep and energy the next day.

  • Put Your Electronics Away. Laying in the bed, watching TV or looking at our cell phone screens has become the American way. It is also contributing to our poor sleep habits. Scientifically speaking, the blue light projected from electronics mimic the sun's brightness.

Even if the rest of the room is dark, the light coming from your phone sends signals to your brain. Your brain thinks that its day time and stops producing melatonin. This not only makes it harder for you to sleep but disrupts your entire sleep cycle.

  • Make A Wind-Down Routine. Making your bedtime routine 'electronic free' is a great step towards resting, but for some people, it can temporarily increase insomnia. To fight against this, take the 30 minutes before bedtime to relax.

You can read a book, meditate, journal, take a bubble bath or any other activity that will help you wind-down. Try to do these things consistently and in an order that will signify to your brain that it is time to go to sleep.

  • Create A Sleep Haven. When it comes to sleep, the environment we all know someone who seems to be able to fall asleep anywhere (car, airport, etc.) but this isn't necessarily healthy. One great way to improve your sleep is to optimize your bedroom. Make sure the temp is low, lights are off, and cut out the noise and other distractions.
  • Stop Hitting The Snooze Button. This tip will probably be the hardest for readers to accept. After all, the 9 minutes of extra sleep we get after banging on the alarm seems like the best, but sleep psychology experts claim it is bad for you. For one, you aren't getting real rest. You would be better off going to bed earlier.

When you hit the alarm and go back to sleep, you put yourself back into the first part of the sleep cycle. Your body begins to pump in hormones that will put you into "deep sleep." When the alarm goes off again, it is even harder to get up. This action is confusing for your brain. It may transition the alarm signal from one meaning "get up" to one meaning "go to sleep".

Changing a sleep routine and implementing new steps to help yourself sleep can be challenging at first, but there are many health benefits. Improved focus, improved mental health, lower risk of diabetes, heart conditions, and even weight management are just a few of the benefits of managing your sleep schedule.


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