Sleep Psychology Findings That May Help Improve Your Rest

Medically reviewed by Karen Foster, LPC
Updated February 23, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The recommended amount of sleep for adults between ages 18 and 64 is seven hours or more, but recent statistics report that over one-third of US adults sleep less than seven hours per night on average. There are many elements of modern life that may cause a person to have trouble getting enough sleep, from hectic schedules to increasing time spent on screens. However, getting enough quality rest is important for overall health and well-being, so understanding the science behind sleep so you can make any necessary adjustments to your routine can be helpful. In this article, we’ll take a brief look at what sleep psychology is, and then we’ll cover some of its key findings that may help you improve your own sleep for better health.

Sleep disturbances can be detrimental to mood and productivity

What is sleep psychology?

Sleep is so important that there’s a branch of psychology specifically dedicated to studying it. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), sleep psychologists “study sleep and evaluate and treat sleep disorders.”

Those who specialize in sleep psychology may focus on topics like typical vs. disordered sleep, sleep cycles, the way sleep changes as we age, sleep management, sleep deprivation and its effects, monitoring and treating sleep disorders, and the effects of different sleep medications.

This allows them to address sleep-related conditions such as:

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

Helpful sleep psychology findings

Sleep psychologists are constantly conducting research aimed at learning how to help more people sleep better. Becoming familiar with some of the key findings from this field can help you on the road to getting better rest yourself.

Humans are the only mammals that delay sleep

Humans seem to be the only mammals that choose to stay up and put off sleep even when we feel tired. We pull all-nighters to study for exams or work double shifts, we stay up late watching movies or taking redeye flights, and we spend time in bed scrolling on social media instead of resting. While these habits may seem harmless, sleep psychologists have found that a frequently delayed sleep schedule may lead to depression, an increased risk of metabolic disorders and type-2 diabetes, and other potential health concerns. To try and decrease this risk, it’s generally recommended that you aim to sleep and wake around the same time every day and try to get at least seven to nine hours per night.

Lack of sleep can affect mood

There’s a reason why someone who’s in a bad mood is sometimes said to have “gotten up on the wrong side of the bed." Sleep psychology reports suggest that not getting enough sleep or getting low-quality rest can affect mood, potentially making someone feel more cranky or irritable than they might usually be. Lack of sleep can also make it more difficult for a person to control their mood, possibly resulting in a decreased ability to handle times when they are angry or upset, which could negatively interfere with daily functioning, work, relationships, and overall well-being.

Sleep debt and depression are linked

According to a 2019 study, sleep disturbances are the most prominent symptom in those with depression. In fact, they used to be regarded as “a main secondary manifestation of depression” as well until researchers discovered that pre-existing insomnia is a risk factor that can increase one’s likelihood of developing depression. Sleep disturbances and depression also appear to have a bi-directional relationship, meaning that the presence of one can exacerbate the other. In this way, prioritizing good sleep and/or getting help for sleep issues could help you protect or improve your mental health.

Sleep deprivation can affect memory

As a 2020 study on the topic puts it, our working memory is “very sensitive to sleep deprivation.” Since working memory correlates strongly with important elements of executive function like reasoning, planning, decision-making, and carrying out complex tasks, a decrease can have significant effects on a person’s cognitive performance. If you’re not getting enough sleep, you might be more prone to making mistakes at school, work, or at home that could be frustrating or even dangerous to you or others.

Some naps may make you more tired

After not getting enough sleep one night, some might try and take a nap the next day to decrease sleepiness. However, note that naps of some durations could make you even more drowsy afterward. The optimal nap length can vary based on a variety of factors such as how sleep-deprived you are at the time, your age, and others. In general, however, a nap that’s 20 minutes or less may be ideal in many cases. Your first deeper sleep cycle usually begins after you’ve been asleep for one hour, making it harder to wake up soon after this point because of the power of sleep inertia. That’s why taking a brief “power nap” may be the best way to get an extra boost of energy on a day when you feel particularly sleepy.

Other tips for better sleep

The facts above illustrate just how important getting enough, high-quality sleep can be for human health. If you’re interested in other tips that may help you do this, consider the following:

  • Control your caffeine intake. Since caffeine is a stimulant, drinking it in large quantities or too late in the day can delay sleep onset and reduce sleep quality, according to a 2021 study. Cutting out caffeine in the afternoon and evening and/or reducing your intake overall could potentially help you sleep better.
  • Get more sunlight during the day. Natural sunlight can help provide energy and vitamin D and keep your circadian rhythm on track. This may be true for other forms of light as well. Sleep psychology research suggests that increasing bright-light exposure can reduce the time it takes for you to go to sleep by over 80% and may improve sleep quality, too.
  • Engage in regular exercise. Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., Medical Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep, is quoted in an article saying, “We have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality.” If you’re experiencing sleep problems, maintaining a regular aerobic exercise routine could help.
  • Avoid screens before bed. The blue light of TV, computer, and phone screens may negatively affect sleep patterns. One study suggests that an hour of screen time can suppress melatonin, a natural sleep chemical, by 23%. Avoiding screens close to bedtime and keeping these backlit devices out of your sleeping space may help you fall asleep faster and wake up less.

If you continue to experience sleep problems after making some simple lifestyle changes, you may want to speak with your doctor and/or psychologist for support and treatment advice.

Sleep disturbances can be detrimental to mood and productivity

How therapy can help

Mental health challenges like chronic stress or symptoms of an anxiety disorder, for example, can negatively impact sleep. They could result in a busy mind that can’t wind down for sleep or one that wakes you up nightly with stress dreams. If you think your mental health could be affecting your sleep, you might benefit from speaking with a therapist. They can help you develop healthy coping mechanisms for stress, anxiety, and other challenges to potentially increase your ability to fall and stay asleep at night. 

Some people find the prospect of meeting with an in-person therapist intimidating, while others can’t regularly commute to appointments because of disability, illness, or a busy schedule, for instance. In these types of scenarios, virtual therapy can be a viable alternative to consider. With a platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist whom you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or online chat to address the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that, in many cases, online therapy can be equally effective as in-person therapy when it comes to addressing mental health challenges and disorders, so you might consider exploring this option if it’s more convenient or comfortable for you.

Takeaway

Sleep psychology is a branch of psychology that relates to the study of sleep and related disorders. Findings from this field can help individuals learn strategies and tips that may help them get better sleep to promote better overall health. If you're experiencing persistent sleep problems, speaking with your doctor and/or a therapist may be worth considering.
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