The Study Of Sleep: Psychology Findings To Improve Your Rest

By: Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated February 15, 2021

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. That’s a lot of hours of 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. Even falling asleep has become difficult for those who are extremely tired. 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:

The actual process of sleep

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, despite knowing that sleep is important. We choose to stay up even when we are tired. So why is falling asleep such a problem for human beings? 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 the increased risk for metabolic disorders and type-2 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. Training your body with this cognitive behavioral method will lead to you regaining control over your days and nights again.

#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!

If you think you may be experiencing the symptoms of depression, Text HOME to 741741 so that you can engage with a counselor who can provide you with positive psychology to improve your quality of life.

#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 during 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.

#6 Lack of Sleep Affects Memory

When a person is sleep deprived, it is not only their physical health that is affected; their mental health is affected as well. Sleep is the opportunity to give our brains the opportunity to form new memories. While sleeping, the brain is processing the events of the day and filing them away for future reference. Without enough sleep, those memories don’t get catalogued. That means those nights that were spent staying up and cramming for a test were for nought, because none of that information was stored in the brain. Memory consolidation is honestly at its worst when you are sleep deprived.

Ways To Improve Your Rest

There are many other ways to improve your rest other than the ones included in the sleep facts above. Not surprisingly, these are all cognitive behavioral methods that can be implemented on your own before you even consider meeting a sleep specialist:

Decrease The Amount Of Coffee You Have In The Evenings. Just one cup of joe can delay your body's clock by 40 minutes, making falling asleep more difficult when it’s bedtime.

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. Getting enough sunlight in your day will help to rebalance your sleep wake cycle, allowing you to go to bed and wake up at more appropriate times.

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. Even the National Sleep Foundation considers exercise at any time of the day to be quite beneficial for the sleep deprived.

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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. It’s a sleep medicine with very few side effects and doesn’t interfere with your brain’s ability to know when to sleep and wake. Melatonin can be great for your mental health as well, as studies have show that it can improve symptoms of anxiety.

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 so that it becomes confused about being sleep and awake. 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. Sleep is important, so treat it like it is, don’t ignore it, and put the phone away.

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 30 minutes before bedtime to relax. Teaching yourself to wind down before bed is a form of cognitive behavioral therapy that anyone can do on their own and is proven to be effective, whether it’s for young children or older adults.

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. By training the body to get up at the same time every day, you’re already engaging in cognitive behavioral therapy to improve your sleep quality for the future.

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.

If you find that you are still unable to fall asleep or remain asleep after implementing the steps mentioned above, then you should definitely find a psychiatrist who focuses on cognitive behavioral methods to improve how you get to sleep at night.

What Happens When You Have Problems Sleeping?

It’s one thing to fall asleep, but staying asleep is something else entirely. Although it can be easy for some people to go to bed at night, problems can arise when the amount of sleep that they get isn’t as much as it should be. Interrupted sleep that continues for a long period of time can result in sleep issues that can affect the rest of your day and can even develop into a chronic sleep disorder like insomnia.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, insomnia occurs when a person has persistent difficulty falling asleep or remaining asleep, which greatly affect mental health. Chronic insomnia occurs when these symptoms occur for at least three months, resulting in a person becoming sleep deprived.

Insomnia is a more common problem than you think, with studies showing that least 10-30% of the population experiencing insomnia at some point in their lives.

What Are the Causes of Insomnia?

Insomnia can be triggered through a number of causes, but it is believed to be mostly caused by a state of hyperarousal that affects sleep quality. Factors that can contribute to this state of hyperarousal include:

Eating foods or substances that have a negative impact on sleep quality. It is a popular belief that alcohol, for example, can help people sleep at night, but drinking alcohol right before bed can actually interrupt sleep REM, which is the deepest part of sleep where we actually dream.

Other substances such as nicotine and caffeine will speed up heart rates, leading to a person staying awake longer and feeling less tired. This also prevents a person from getting a good night’s sleep, since their body is in overdrive due to the caffeine and nicotine.

Certain health problems can decrease sleep hygiene, such as conditions that increase trips to the bathroom at night, or illnesses that cause a lot of pain or discomfort. One important health problem to take note of is sleep apnea, a sleeping disorder that is characterized by repetitive moments of breathing stopping and starting again.

Mental health disorders can also have an impact on sleep hygiene, such as anxiety or panic disorders. Because the brain is in a constant state of hyperawareness, it can be difficult for it to calm down when it’s time to go to sleep. Rampant thoughts can plague the mind, leading to overthinking and worrying thoughts that keep a person up at night.  If you notice that you’re regularly experiencing pervasive thoughts that keep you up at night, then find a psychiatrist who can talk you through to getting the help you need to improve your mental health.

How Mental Health Affects Sleep Quality

As stated earlier, certain mental health disorders can affect the amount of sleep you’re getting on a regular basis. Conditions like anxiety create an excess amount of fear that affects every day life. That worry and fear can make it difficult for the brain to enter a restful state at bedtime, leading to an interruption in the normal sleep and wake cycle that the body should be experiencing.

Bipolar disorder can also have an effect on sleep. It involves episodes of extreme changes in mood, from highs to lows. These changes can be quite disruptive to a person’s every day life, especially when it comes to their sleep. During a high or manic period, a person will be in a state of hyperarousal, feeling less tired at night. But during a depressive or low period, they can sleep excessively for long hours. This imbalance in the sleep schedule has a bad effect on the body’s internal clock so that it doesn’t know when it should be asleep and when it should be awake.

But you don’t have to feel like you’re alone. In the United States, there are roughly 5.7 million adults who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder and of those who received cognitive behavioral therapy demonstrated improved treatment compliance by 86%. Contact the Crisis Text Line today by texting HOME to 741741 if you feel you may be experiencing symptoms of bipolar disorder.

How Do Eating Disorders Affect Sleep Quality?

There are two main eating disorders that can reduce the amount of sleep that a person gets: sleep-related eating disorder (SRED) and nocturnal eating syndrome (NES). Both of these conditions can not only affect your sleep, but your mental health as well. SRED is a type of parasomnia, where a person eats when they’re sleepwalking. That means that they can prepare and eat food but they don’t remember doing so when they wake up. A person living with SRED will usually eat food that they normally would during the day, but it can become dangerous when they start eating inedible substances. SRED can result in weight gain, developing type-2 diabetes, cavities and tooth decay after ingesting sugary foods, poor quality of sleep due to the sleep-wake cycle, and possibly injuring themselves during the preparation of food.

NES is not parasomnia; in fact, the person is actively waking up during the night, feeling as if they cannot fall asleep again unless they eat. Symptoms of NES include having no appetite at breakfast time, eating more than half of their daily food intake after dinner, and having this pattern persist for at least two months.

If you’re experiencing either of these symptoms, please contact the National Eating Disorder Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. They can help you find a psychiatrist to provide you with the positive psychology you need to retake control of your life and reset your internal clock.


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