How to get a better night’s sleep – a psychologist’s insights

Understanding insomnia.

Have you ever found yourself lying awake at night, unable to fall asleep? Or maybe you’ve managed to finally switch off, only to wake up a short time later.

Insomnia is a sleep disorder characterised by difficulty initiating or maintaining sleep for at least one month and which can affect about 10% of people.

Our quality of sleep is very highly correlated with our mood and mental health, and vice versa.

Did you know that insomnia is ten times more likely to be caused by a psychological disorder than a physical disorder?

Problems with falling or staying asleep are a symptom of depression and/ or anxiety and can also occur during periods of heightened stress.

Symptoms of insomnia include:

  • Struggling to fall asleep or initiate sleep.
  • Taking a long time to fall asleep.
  • Waking repeatedly in the night.
  • Sleeping for only short periods of time.
  • Waking up early and being unable to get back to sleep.
  • Not feeling refreshed after a night of sleep.

Insomnia also affects how we feel when we are awake:

  • Feeling fatigued or lacking energy.
  • Struggling to concentrate.
  • Trouble remembering things.
  • Feeling irritable or anxious.
  • Performing poorly at work or school.
Interesting Fact:

What’s interesting about insomnia is the huge impact our mindset has on our perceived quality of sleep. Did you know that, on average, people with insomnia sleep the same number of hours of sleep as someone without insomnia? However, people with insomnia tend to underestimate how much sleep they get each night and overestimate the amount of time it takes to fall asleep.

Characteristics of people with insomnia/ problems with sleeping

Psychologists think that the way people think about their sleep impacts their actual quality of sleep. For example, people with insomnia tend to:

  • Become excessively preoccupied with thoughts about sleep, both at night and during the daytime. These thoughts tend to be mostly negative to – e.g., “Last night I hardly slept at all, I feel terrible” or “I’ve woken up at 2am, my sleep is ruined, now tomorrow is going to be so difficult”.
  • Become selectively aware of sleep-related ‘threats.’ Essentially, insomniacs tend to be hyper-aware of signs and signals that their sleep is going to go poorly. For example, watching the clock to see how long it takes to fall asleep, or being very aware of how tired they feel at work.
  • Have distorted beliefs about how sleep affects their ability to function during the day. Insomniacs are more likely to attribute things to the fact that they haven’t slept very well. For example, believing that a bad day at work is due to a poor night’s rest. Even though poor sleep does affect things like our concentration and memory, insomniacs tend to overestimate how much their sleep (or lack thereof) is impacting their day-to-day life.
  • Have unrealistic expectations about sleep. Most people tend to wake up once or twice a night to go to the bathroom or get a drink of water. However, people with insomnia might believe that they need to get eight hours of deep, uninterrupted sleep every night.
  • Have safety behaviours: Behaviours that people think will help them sleep better or function better during the day. For example, trying to stop or suppress thoughts at night; drinking alcohol or using substances to bring on drowsiness; or avoiding/cancelling activities during the day to take a nap.
  • How to improve your sleep:
    • Avoid:
      • Napping during the day, even if you’re tired.
      • Watching television in bed.
      • Using a device with a bright screen in the hour before you go to sleep.
      • Consuming caffeinated drinks during the day, including tea, Coke, and energy drinks (especially after 6pm).
      • Drinking alcohol.
      • Eating a heavy meal less than three hours before going to sleep.
      • Trying to stay in bed if you can’t fall asleep (try getting up to do something calming or relaxing, then try again later).
    • Try to:
      • Exercise regularly (but not before bedtime).
      • Set aside time in the day to practice mindfulness, deep breathing, or other relaxation exercises.
      • Having a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine.
      • Setting up the environment to encourage good sleep (such as making sure the bedroom is completely dark, having comfortable pillows and bedding, ensuring the temperature is just right).

Given that our sleep can be highly impact by our thoughts and behaviours, talking to a psychologist can be a great way to re-think the way we sleep. Psychologists can help you to identify unhelpful thoughts and beliefs, notice any safety behaviours you’re engaging in and work to reduce them, and help you develop healthy sleep habits.

Speak to your psychologist today about Insomnia.

Written By Frieda Scholten-Laidler, Provisional Registered Psychologist

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