How can a psychologist help with sleep issues?

Sleep plays an important role in overall health and well-being, influencing our mood, relationships, professional performance, and physical health. Although we can all have a bad night’s sleep now and then, ongoing sleep issues, such as having difficulties falling or staying asleep, are all too common.

Psychologists with specific training in sleep medicine and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) play an important role in addressing and resolving these sleep-related challenges. They can help with many sleep-related issues, including insomnia, hypersomnia, narcolepsy, optimising sleep for shift workers, and reducing nightmares.

Through understanding your thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, psychologists can create a supportive environment and work with you to explore and address the causes of your sleep-related issues and provide you with personalised, evidence-based strategies to help you get better sleep, best manage daytime fatigue, and improve your overall well-being.

Yasmin Gonella, one of our Clinical Psychologists at Inner Melbourne Clinical Psychology, has over ten years of experience helping people to improve their sleep. She has worked in medical and research settings, providing psychological treatments for persons experiencing sleep issues. In this article, Yasmin outlines how a psychologist can help with sleep issues, some practical tips for better sleep and frequently asked questions about sleep issues.

Frequently Asked Questions About Sleep Issues

Isn’t sleep a medical issue?

A common misconception is that sleep difficulties or excessive daytime fatigue are solely medical issues. Rather, they often require changes in habits and thinking patterns, which is where psychologists can help. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I; a psychological treatment), endorsed by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, stands out as an effective, long-term solution, surpassing sleeping tablets for treating insomnia. Additional psychological strategies, including mindfulness and acceptance, further contribute to managing a busy mind at night and promoting relaxation.

Do psychologists prescribe sleep medication?

Psychologists do not prescribe sleeping tablets or any other medications. Although short-term use of sleeping tablets can be helpful for some people, they are not a long-term solution. They can also come with side effects and be addictive. CBT-I is the most effective treatment of insomnia. This is an approach some psychologists use when treating sleep issues.

Is it necessary to see a psychologist or can I manage sleep issues on my own?

Although sleep issues can often be temporary, for example, during a stressful period or after having a baby, for some people sleep issues keep going. In fact, it is often the strategies that we use to help cope with sleep issues (e.g., having those extra coffees) that can keep the problem going. This is where having a sleep psychologist can help. They can help you figure out what is getting in the way of your sleep and then work with you to correct the unhelpful habits and/or thoughts that are keeping you awake at night.

Are sleep problems always related to psychological issues?

Difficulties sleeping or feeling overly fatigued or sleepy can have many causes. Some of these can be psychological, such as depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues. There can be medical reasons as well, for example, hormonal changes, chronic pain, or an underlying sleep disorder, such as narcolepsy. Sometimes there are no underlying medical or psychological issues at all and our sleep issues become a pattern we fall into overtime. Despite the underlying cause, sleep psychologists can often play an important role in helping you to optimise your sleep and best manage fatigue, working closely with your GP and/or sleep physician, to help achieve the best outcomes for you. Sleep psychologists are also trained in the treatment of mental health issues so can help you manage these as well.

How long does it take to see improvements in sleep after treatment with a psychologist?

Although treatment varies from person to person, often people can see improvements in as little as four weeks! The best way to see results quickly is to ensure that you keep to the tasks or homework between sessions as advised by your treating psychologist.

Through collaboration with you and your medical team, psychologists can help identify and correct the habits and thought patterns that get in the way of good sleep, ultimately guiding you towards healthier patterns and improved overall well-being.

Practical tips for better sleep

Tip #1

Keeping to a consistent sleep routine can work wonders! Just like how your dog knows when it is dinner time each night, our body also keeps an internal clock. When we mix up the times that we wake up in the morning (i.e., that Sunday morning sleep-in!) we are throwing our body clock out of whack and essentially giving ourselves jet lag.

Tip #2

A common misconception is that we should just be able to stop our busy day and fall asleep as soon our head hits the pillow. Taking some time before bed to wind down and relax can not only help us fall asleep more easily but can also help us stay asleep during the night. Dimming the lights, doing a calming activity, and perhaps throwing in some camomile tea or lavender can be just the thing here.

Tip #3

The number one sleep complaint is not being able to turn off a busy mind at night. Although we can’t ever “turn off” our brain, switching our attention to something relaxing can be really helpful here. Perhaps set a time well before bed to write your to-do list or write in a journal so you can clear your head and make way for more peaceful thoughts. You might also like to try one of our relaxation exercises here.

Tip #4

Try to limit things that might help you to keep alert during the day, but backfire when you’re trying to fall asleep that night. For example, that afternoon coffee or nap.

Tip #5

Remembering that there is no such thing as having “perfect”, uninterrupted, 8-hour sleep every night can take the pressure off. Once the pressure is off and we are no longer trying to force this perfect sleep, we often fall asleep more easily.

If you have tried all of these and are still having trouble do not give up hope! These are just some quick tips to get you started.

Book an appointment to get support for your sleep issues

If you would like some support with your sleep, reach out to our Support Team to book an appointment with Yasmin here.