What Exactly Does a Sleep Psychologist Do?

What Exactly Does a Sleep Psychologist Do?

What does a sleep psychologist do, and how can they help you sleep? Stellar Sleep discusses the difference this branch of medication can make.

Psychology is a vast field with many specialties, each focusing on a different niche. If you’re having trouble with your sleep schedule — finding yourself lying awake in bed for hours before you can fall asleep or waking up for no reason in the middle of the night — a sleep psychologist may be just what you need to change things for the better. 

But what exactly does a sleep psychologist do, and how can they help you get better sleep? Stellar Sleep has everything you need to know about this unique branch of medicine so you can decide if seeing a sleep psychologist is the right step for you.

What Is a Sleep Psychologist?

A sleep psychologist is a healthcare provider specializing in everything related to sleep. With so many people dealing with sleep problems (either on a short-term or long-term basis), a well-rounded approach is essential for successfully addressing poor sleep for all demographics.

This approach doesn’t focus solely on the physical aspects of sleep issues (like many general practitioners do). Instead, it blends the most current psychological techniques with the basics of physical sleep medicine to address all of the factors that can play a role in sleep disturbances. 

Why Is Sleep So Important?

When you don’t get enough sleep, you’re at a higher risk of developing a wide spectrum of physical and mental health issues. Sleep deprivation — especially when lack of sleep persists for long periods — can have a negative impact on your immune system, decision-making, and mood, and can even contribute to the development of chronic health conditions. Getting good-quality sleep is one of the best things you can do for your body. 

What Does a Sleep Psychologist Do?

The primary job of a sleep psychologist is to specifically focus on the mental factors that can impact the quantity and quality of sleep. This branch of psychology originated as a different way to look at common sleep-related issues from multiple angles.

A sleep psychologist uses evidence-based medicine and a broad understanding of sleep’s physiological and psychological aspects: Age-related changes to sleep, sleep cycles, sleep disturbances, sleep regulation, and different interventions for sleep disorders. They put this knowledge into practice by helping their patients identify what may be causing their sleep issues and developing a customized approach to help resolve them.

In addition, another part of a sleep psychologist’s job is looking at sleep hygiene — the habits and physical environment that surround and impact sleep. Factors like room temperature, technology usage, room darkness, bed comfort, diet, and exercise all affect how well and how long you sleep. 

Many people don’t realize how much their habits are negatively impacting their ability to get the sleep they need, and sleep psychologists can help sort through them and find a solution. They can also recommend that patients pursue more physiological treatments and tests, like sleep studies. It’s this holistic approach that makes this branch of psychology so effective.

What Is CBT-I?

CBT, short for cognitive behavioral therapy, is a popular method of psychological “talk therapy.” CBT is known for being very structured and goal-focused, helping people to identify and change any unhealthy or unhelpful behaviors, feelings, or ways of thinking. 

There are multiple subtypes of cognitive behavioral therapy, including CBT-I.CBT-I focuses specifically on using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques to help people who are dealing with chronic insomnia make the changes needed to improve their sleep. 

Most CBT-I coaches focus on three factors that contribute to insomnia:

  • Conditioned Arousal: If you consistently associate your bed with stress or insomnia, you may develop conditioned arousal, making it difficult to relax and fall asleep in that environment.
  • Identifying and Eliminating “Bad” Sleep Habits: Habits can include a lack of structured bedtime routines, excessive screen time, or use of stimulants before sleep.
  • Reducing Sleep-Related Stress: Stimulus control, evaluating foods and substances that may interfere with sleep, and sleep restriction are some of the tactics employed in this process.

Many people who undergo CBT-I notice changes in their sleep fairly quickly, sometimes within just a few sessions. However, like with any change, consistency is key. CBT-I isn’t a “cure” — it gives you the tools you need to continue to adjust.

How Is a Sleep Psychologist Different From a Doctor?

If both sleep psychologists and doctors manage the treatment of sleep disorders, what makes them different as healthcareproviders? Let’s explore the key differentiating factors.

Psychological vs. Physical Factors

While medical doctors focus on the physical factors that impact sleep (like sleep apnea or circadian rhythm disorders), sleep psychologists focus on psychological factors. 

For example, sleep psychologists focus on the mental aspects instead of physiological issues that may keep patients from getting quality sleep, like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). 

Narrow vs. Broad Focus

Sleep psychologists are also different from doctors because they have a narrow focus, looking specifically at the psychological aspects of sleep and sleep disturbance. While some doctors may perform some functions of sleep medicine, like prescribing sleep medications, they also have a much broader focus. 

When seeking treatment for sleep disorders or other related issues, why not turn to the people who focus specifically on and have a passion for sleep medicine? Save time and money by going right to the experts. 

Root Cause vs. Quick Fixes

Another difference between sleep psychologists and primary careproviders is how they choose to address the issue. While many GPs will give patients quick fixes — like sleep medications — to help them artificially fall asleep, sleep psychologists take a deep dive to look at the root cause of the issue.

Addressing the root cause leads to longevity. While a quick fix can temporarily stop the problem, it will eventually return. When you can identify the actual reason behind the issue, you can treat it in a way that helps find a permanent solution. 

What Conditions Can a Sleep Psychologist Treat?

Although every sleep psychologist is unique, there is a list of common sleep-related conditions that most address:

  • Adherence to sleep-related medical interventions (like continuous positive airway pressure/CPAP machines)
  • Insomnia
  • Narcolepsy (hypersomnia)
  • Medical conditions with sleep disturbances as a side effect
  • Parasomnias (bed wetting, nightmares, sleep terrors, sleepwalking) 
  • Sleep disorders
  • Sleep-relatedmovement disorders (teeth grinding, periodic limb movement disorders, restless leg syndrome)

When Should You See a Sleep Psychologist?

The right time to see a sleep psychologist is when you recognize that you’re not getting the best night’s sleep possible. Taking the steps to get help allows you to take charge and make proper changes.

Other reasons you should see a sleep psychologist include:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Frequently waking up at night
  • Gasping for air or snoring while you sleep
  • Trouble falling or staying asleep at night

Everyone deserves a good night’s rest. If you don’t feel you’re getting great sleep, seeing a sleep psychologist can help you get there. 

How Can You Start Seeing a Sleep Psychologist?

Seeing a sleep psychologist isn’t as complicated as you may think — they are available at the touch of a button. 

So, how can you get started? Download our Stellar Sleep app, where you can work with a CBT-I coach to develop a unique plan of attack to address the areas that may be holding you back.

Sleep psychologists work in a variety of different professional environments, including private practice, the hospital, and even online. This level of flexibility ensures you are able to get help, regardless of where you are.

The Bottom Line

A sleep psychologist, especially knowledgeable in CBT-I, is one of the most effective yet underutilized ways to ensure you get healthy sleep. Start by taking our free sleep quiz to see where your specific issues may lie. You deserve your best night’s rest, and Stellar Sleep is here to help you do that.


Why sleep is important and what happens when you don’t get enough | APA

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia: An Effective and Underutilized Treatment for Insomnia | PMC

Sleep Quality, Mental and Physical Health: A Differential Relationship | PMC

What Is Obstructive Sleep Apnea in Adults? | American Thoracic Society

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