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Week 3: The Psychology Behind Better Sleep

By Rory Lalor

You've seen it, heard it, or just thought about it – it’s too difficult to resist, it’s going to happen any second…. it’s a big YAWWWWWWN. More contagious than voluntarily dumping a bucket of ice water over your head, a yawn epidemic spreads through your environment with no mercy. When you see a yawn, you need to yawn, even reading the 5 yawns in this paragraph have probably made you yawn (that’s 7 now, sorry). 

There is something in our makeup that triggers contagious yawning. There is also something in our makeup that makes sleep easy for some and difficult for others. This week we will be looking at the psychology of sleep; we’ll look at sleep disorders – what they are and how to treat them, for those of you who wake up in the middle of the night we also have 5 tips to help get you back to sleep.

At some time or another we've all experienced some level of difficulty getting to sleep. For most of us this is temporary problem. Sometimes however these difficulties persist, if you find that your lack of sleep is affecting your daily life, you may be suffering from a sleep disorder. These disorders are more than just sleepiness, they can cause emotional trauma, affect your energy levels and have negative effects on those around you. 

How Do I Know if I Have a Sleeping Disorder? 

It may seem self-evident but people can go through such long cycles of dysfunctional sleep that they become unaware of what is considered normal. Below is a list of questions that can help identify if you have a sleep disorder:

·         Do you have very low energy levels all day every day?

·         Do you snore every night?

·         Have you difficulty staying awake while sitting?

·         Do you often react slowly when people are talking to you?

·         Have an overall feeling of numbness or find it difficult to control your emotions?

·         Have you had trouble falling asleep for over a month?

Some of the questions are more pertinent than others, but if you answered yes to one or more questions you may be suffering from a sleep disorder.

It’s important to know that dysfunctional sleep is treatable and does not always need professional help. The simple tracking of your own sleep patterns and a simple change in diet (see last week’s mail for more information) can often eradicate poor sleep patterns. Generally speaking if you have been suffering from any of the afflictions above for over a month it may be time to see a specialist. 

Common Sleep Disorders


Insomnia is the inability to sleep for long periods of time. Chronic insomnia is defined when you have problems falling asleep, maintaining sleep, or experience non-restorative sleep that occurs on a regular or frequent basis, often for no apparent reason. How long insomnia can last varies from person to person, for some it's nights, others weeks and other can be months.

Insomnia symptoms may include:

·         Difficulty falling asleep at night

·         Waking up during the night

·         Waking up too early

·         Daytime fatigue or sleepiness

·         Daytime irritability

Insomnia is more often than not caused by stress and anxiety. Anything from work related stress to concerns about family can cause sleepless nights. The good thing is that these causes can often be treated with a simple adjustment to daily routine. If you can find the source of your stress and alleviate it from your life both your quality and quantity of sleep will benefit.


"Sleep disruption such as insomnia is really a symptom of another underlying problem. It could just be down to too much sugar or caffeine or something more complex such as a medical condition or psychological stress. Thankfully sleep problems can be addressed and can be resolved" 

- Andrew Dillon, Service Manager at Spectrum Therapy

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)

This disorder is caused by the irresistible and unpleasant urge to move your legs when trying to rest. Also known as Willis-Ekbom Disease RLS is a neurological disorder that temporarily relieves the urge to move your legs. This urge is an uncontrollable tick that can do detrimental damage to your mental and physical health. 

RLS Symptoms may include:

·         A strong desire to move your legs when you sit down.

·         Symptoms feel creepy-crawly, itchy, pulling, or tugging

·         Occurs most often when resting or sleeping

·         A quick ease when legs finally move

·         Keeping a partner awake at night with kicking legs

·         Tired or unable to concentrate during the day

RLS is a serious but treatable condition. By making some simple life changes people can learn how to live with it. There are various different levels of RLS and some treatments may work better than others. Controlling your diet can play an important role. Things like caffeine and alcohol intake should be minimised and generally restricted until symptoms subside. Lifestyle changes like regular exercise can also be of huge benefit and taking iron supplements have also been known to help. It is important to work out an overall plan with your healthcare professional so as to approach your own specific requirements.


Is a chronic brain disorder that involves poor control of sleep-wake cycles. Often associated with sleep attacks (sudden and often spontaneous relapses into a state of sleep) Narcolepsy is a condition that affects your daily life. It globally affects men and woman equally and can manifest in any age group. A normal sleep cycle would last about 100-110 minutes to reach REM. Narcolepsy sufferers instantaneously fall into REM and as a result often have broken sleep.

Narcolepsy Symptoms

·         Excessive daytime sleepiness

·         Cataplexy - a sudden loss of muscle tone, usually triggered by emotional stimuli

·         Hallucinations

·         Sleep paralysis

·         Immediately dreaming when going to sleep

There currently is no widely accepted cure for Narcolepsy but behavioural therapy can often help alleviate many difficulties. To combat excessive sleepiness it's best to take 2-3 short naps a day (about 15-20 mins). It’s also important to maintain a regular sleep schedule. This regulates the body and reduces the chance of sleep attacks. Stay away from coffee and alcohol and maintain a regular exercise regime.


Tips on How to get back to sleep

For many of us sleep can be difficult, we toss and turn all night worrying about things that cannot be helped. If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night unable to go back to sleep then we have some useful tips that might make it that little bit easier.

  1. Get Out of Bed – The golden rule of getting back to sleep is to get up out of bed. Go into another room and do something unexciting. Stay there until you feel ready to go back to sleep
  2. Use Dim Lights – If you find yourself having to get up, try to avoid sharp lights. The sensation only serves to stimulate the mind. Try and avoid any backlit devices before bed, if you rad try and use an ordinary book.
  3. Keep a Sleep Diary – if you find yourself continuously waking up throughout the night it may be good to keep record of how many times you woke up through the night. You can then examine the reasons why this may have been eg the amount of coffee drank etc.
  4. Talk with a Specialist – If the problem persists it may be time to see a sleep specialist. They can diagnose your problem and work out a sleeping schedule that is tailored to your needs. 
  5. Relaxation Techniques – Learning how to calm you mind and body is a great way to relax and ease yourself back into sleep. Some of these include:

- Deep breathing – a simple and easy technique this can be used if you feel a sudden panic onset.

- Meditation – By focusing on your breathing and think of a singular image or phrase you put your mind at ease

- Progressive Muscle Relaxation – This is a method of tightening and releases various muscles throughout your body. The idea is to start with your toes and work your way upwards through your body.

Next week we discuss the impact of the latest technology on improving the quality of sleep.

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