Psychological Approaches to Sleeping Well

Environment, behavior, and thoughts keys to improvement

By Jen Nash, DClinPsych,

National Sleep Awareness Week begins on 2nd March 2014, which is the National Sleep Foundation's annual week-long campaign to celebrate the health benefits of sleep. 

The week begins with the release of National Sleep Foundation's ‘Sleep in America' poll on Monday, March 3 – which is a survey developed and implemented by statistical experts cataloguing the state of sleep in America. The week ends with the return to Daylight Saving Time, when clocks move ahead one hour and too many Americans lose an hour of sleep…. if being reminded of the thought you're about to lose yet another hour of precious sleep fills you with dread, this article will help!

Sleep. Snooze. Zzzz's What's your relationship with it? Many people feel absolute joy at the thought of curling up in bed for an early night, or sleeping late on a day off, and can never get enough of it. Others of us are desperate for it, yet can't seem to get the whole thing quite figured out.

Problems with sleep vary immensely and can include:

  • Taking a long time to get off to sleep
  • Waking up a lot during the night
  • Waking too early in the morning.
  • Oversleeping in the morning
  • Daytime sleeping in a way that interferes with your life
  • Disrupted sleep caused by shift patterns, partner snoring, or a restless child

Sleep is essential for our health and wellbeing. Most people say they need about 7-8 hours a night, but it's a very personal relationship and we all need different amounts of sleep. Some of these differences are related to age — babies require around 16 hours or more, whilst as we age, many people find they need only 4 hours.

So what exactly is sleep? Sleep involves becoming unconscious, unaware of what's going on around you. As you sleep, you pass through different stages and there are two main ones:

Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep — This comes and goes throughout the night, and makes up about 20% of your sleep. The brain is very active, your eyes move quickly from side to side and you dream. Although your brain is active, your muscles are very relaxed.

Non-REM sleep — You remain unconscious but your body moves around more. Your body repairs itself as necessary and hormones are released into the bloodstream. There are three stages of non-REM sleep:

  • 'Pre-sleep' - heart beats slower, body temperature falls and muscles relax
  • 'Light sleep' – you are asleep, but can easily wake
  • 'Slow wave' sleep - it's hard to wake up and if somebody does wake you, you feel confused.

You move between REM and non-REM sleep about five times during the night, and dream more in later stages of sleep, closer to waking. Most people wake up for one or two minutes every two hours and this is very normal. You often aren't aware of waking, but may remember if there is something else going on, like your partner snoring or noises outside.
Many things can affect the quality or your sleep, including physical illness or emotional distress. As a result of not sleeping well, we may feel tired, drained, and every day challenges can be more difficult to deal with. Sometimes we start worrying about not sleeping and then this causes us to sleep even less. We can improve our sleep by focusing on three areas — our environment, our behavior, and our thoughts.

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Last Modified Date: March 05, 2014

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