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What is Sleep Therapy and How Does it Work?

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Written by: Alex Savy
Read 10 minLast updated on June 16, 2022

Getting quality sleep is about more than just preventing daytime fatigue and bags under your eyes (although it helps with those, too!). Your body and mind need adequate sleep to function properly in daily life. Sleep affects everything from your mood and ability to focus to your weight and heart health.  

The CDC recommends adults get between 7 and 9 hours of sleep a night. This number can fluctuate depending on your age, medical condition, and if you’re pregnant. Countless factors can make it seemingly impossible to reach this mark including stress, chronic pain, and poor sleep habits. Sleep therapy can help. 

Whether you’ve heard of sleep therapy but aren’t really sure what it is or this is a totally new concept to you, we’re here to explain. Keep reading to learn what sleep therapy is, how it works, and how it can improve your sleep quality, health, and quality of life.

Sleep Therapy Explained

In short, sleep therapy is a form of therapy designed to improve your sleep quality, including how fast you fall asleep, the duration of your sleep, and reducing how often you wake up. One of the major benefits of sleep therapy is that it can also improve mental health. 

The relationship between mental health conditions (including depression, anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and bipolar disorder), and sleep is a complex one. In some cases, underlying mental health disorders may trigger insomnia while in others, long-term sleep deprivation can cause mental health issues. Because of this, it can be difficult to know which condition to treat first. The good news is that many of the techniques used in sleep therapy not only address insomnia but may also reduce mental health symptoms as well. 

Similar to therapy for treating mental health disorders, sleep therapy addresses the negative thoughts and feelings you have about sleep. By identifying the cause of these thoughts, feelings, and behaviors and working to replace them with healthier habits, many patients experience deeper sleep, an improved mood, and overall better quality of life.

Check out our Free Sleep Calculator which helps you to find the best time to go to bed and wake up in order to feel rested. 

Common Types of Sleep Therapy

The most common and widely used form of sleep therapy is known as cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia or CBT-I for short. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a type of psychological treatment used to treat a range of issues including anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and yes, sleep!

The premise behind CBT is to recognize and replace unhealthy thoughts and behaviors with more positive and productive ones. This starts by identifying the problem or trouble situation – in this case, the inability to sleep well. Next, you learn to become aware of your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs related to this problem. 

For example, do you feel anxious before bed because you anticipate a fitful night of sleep? Or perhaps you’ve convinced yourself that sleep isn’t that important so you start to forgo it altogether? Once you identify these intrusive thoughts, a therapist will help you determine their origin. You’ll also learn to view these negative beliefs from a more objective place rooted in fact.  From there, you learn to reshape your thinking and replace negative or unsubstantiated thoughts with healthy ones based on truth and reality. 

In addition to recognizing and replacing negative thoughts associated with sleep, CBT-I also helps insomnia sufferers identify potentially negative behaviors that may be impacting sleep. Things like light exposure too close to bedtime, using your bed for “awake” activities like eating or working, going to bed at different times every night, or having your thermostat set too high could be sabotaging your sleep without you even realizing it. Through CBT-I, you’ll learn to adopt healthier habits that promote quality, restorative sleep.

CBT-I Techniques

Not everyone’s sleep issues are the same. Different lifestyle choices, health conditions, and environmental factors can all impact sleep quality in different ways. That’s why therapists use a variety of CBT-I techniques when treating insomnia and other sleep disorders.

Not all techniques will work for everyone. Through a process of elimination and experimentation, you’ll find which sleep therapy techniques work best for you, your issues, and your lifestyle. It usually takes a combination of sleep therapy methods to help overcome insomnia and other related sleep disorders. 

Stimulus Control

Stimulus control involves limiting or removing external factors that trigger your brain and body into thinking it should be awake. For example, using digital devices too close to bedtime. The blue light from screens like your smartphone and television inhibits the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. As a form of stimulus control, your therapist might suggest you ditch the digital devices 60 to 90 minutes before you go to sleep and opt for healthier, more relaxing habits like reading a book, writing in a journal, or even meditating.

Another common practice is to avoid lying in bed awake for longer than 15 to 20 minutes. When you stay in bed awake for longer than this, your brain and body associate your bed with wakefulness instead of sleep. Try getting up and performing a relaxing activity with limited light exposure until you feel tired enough to fall asleep. Once you do, return to bed and repeat this routine until you fall asleep within the first 15 to 20 minutes of lying down. Now, your body associates your bed with sleep instead of being awake and alert.

Environmental Optimization

Another way to help ease yourself into a good night’s sleep is to create a comfortable, welcoming sleep environment. This includes investing in a comfortable mattress, quality bedding, supportive pillow, and other accessories like a soothing sound machine and room darkening shades. 

Light and noise are two of the most common sleep inhibitors. Whether you’re battling a noisy neighbor or roommate, inclement weather, or traffic, blocking out these obtrusive noises can help reduce how many times you wake up during the night. A sound machine offers a selection of soothing sleep sounds like rain, a waterfall, or nighttime insects to name a few. You can also use an oscillating fan to create white noise. Block out unwanted light from outside by investing in room darkening shades or a sleep mask that covers your eyes. Reduce light in your bedroom by covering digital alarm clocks, placing your phone face-down on a nearby surface, and keeping your television turned off.

Chronic pain is another common cause of insomnia. The inability to find a comfortable sleep position can lead to tossing and turning, difficulty falling asleep, and frequent awakenings. Find a mattress that is the perfect balance between firmness and softness. The right pillow will support your neck and head, reducing neck, shoulder, and back pain. Not to mention, quality bedding that wraps around you at night like a warm, welcoming blanket promotes deeper, more restorative sleep. It also keeps you cool at night, preventing night sweats. 

All of these changes will help reduce unwanted disruptions and create an atmosphere that’s not only comfortable but conducive for deep, restorative sleep. 

Improved Sleep Hygiene

Hygiene doesn’t just refer to your physical cleanliness. Sleep hygiene is an overarching phrase used to describe habits that promote quality sleep. While many of the abovementioned recommendations fall into this category, CBT-I offers other tips and techniques for improving your sleep hygiene. 

One such method is building a healthy sleep routine. This involves going to bed and waking at the same time each day, limiting late-night snacking and caffeine use, and incorporating plenty of physical activity into your day. Doing so promotes a healthy circadian rhythm, which is your body’s sleep-wake cycle. By going to bed and waking up around the same time each day (including weekends), you’re training your brain and body to subconsciously prepare for sleep and prepare to wake up based on a set schedule. Exercise helps regulate your mood and makes it easier to fall asleep at night. Avoid exercising too close to bedtime, though. This will increase adrenaline levels, triggering wakefulness. 

Your diet also plays an important role in how well you sleep. Eating too large a meal too close to bedtime can result in gas, bloating, indigestion, and other gastrointestinal discomforts. It may also cause you to wake frequently during the night to use the bathroom or find a more comfortable sleeping position. Drinking too much water too close to bedtime is another trigger for frequent bathroom trips. Avoid drinking or eating 60 to 90 minutes before bed. Ward off late-night hunger pangs with a healthy, light snack like yogurt, popcorn, or hummus. 

Sleep Restriction

When discussing how well you sleep, sometimes, it’s about quality over quantity. Five hours of quality sleep may be more beneficial than nine hours of restless sleep and frequent awakenings. While this CBT-I technique may sound counterproductive, the goal is to reduce the amount of time spent in bed awake and increase the amount of deep sleep you get.

Start by determining the average total number of hours you sleep per week. This will help identify your sleep window. If you sleep for an average of 6 hours per night, sleep restriction requires that you only spend 6 hours in bed. Next, document what time you go to bed and how long you sleep. The time you spend asleep divided by the time you spend in bed (in minutes) is known as your sleep efficiency. Based on this data, your CBT-I therapist will make recommendations for adjusting your sleep window to optimize sleep quality.

Change the Way You Think About Sleep

Sometimes, achieving quality sleep is about mind over matter. If you approach sleep or your insomnia issues with a pessimistic attitude, chances are, not much will change. CBT-I and other sleep therapy techniques help change your mind frame while also offering suggestions for healthier, more productive sleep habits.

You need and deserve a blissful night’s sleep. Let sleep therapy help guide the way. 

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