Three Psychological Therapies for Sleep Disorders

Do you suffer from insomnia? Do you work shifts and have trouble falling asleep? Or, do you suffer from apnea or some kind of parasomnia? If so, you can benefit from certain therapies. Find out about them here.
Three Psychological Therapies for Sleep Disorders
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 09 June, 2023

There’s an increasing demand for psychological therapies to treat sleep disorders. Indeed, we live in a society that sleeps poorly and has a high rate of sleep-associated disorders. For instance, sleep apnea and restless legs syndrome. Fortunately, there are some specialized clinical resources that can completely improve our quality of life.

As a matter of fact, their benefits are unquestionable, especially if we take into account the impact of poor sleep on our physical and mental health. For example, a study published in the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine claims that insomnia acts as a risk factor for the development of depression.

So, if you’ve been sleeping badly recently, the following therapies may well be useful.

A restful night guarantees proper brain and body functioning.

Sleep disorders

When sleep disorders are mentioned, 80 percent of us immediately think of insomnia. So, you might be surprised to learn that there are various kinds of sleep disturbances. Moreover, they’re on the increase.

A study conducted by the University of Kyoto (Japan) states that clinical conditions such as sleep-disordered breathing, and short or unrefreshing sleep have a great impact on public health. For example, apnea is a condition for which many sufferers don’t consult a doctor but, in the long run, alters their quality of life in several ways. Bearing this in mind, it’s useful to know what the main sleeping disorders are. They’re as follows:


Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder. It’s defined by difficulty in falling asleep and staying asleep throughout the night. We all suffer from it at some point. Behind this recurring problem may lie stress, anxiety, depression, irregular sleep habits, or certain diseases.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

Snoring is one of the most frequent and neglected problems among the population. They’re situations in which breathing is interrupted during sleep. At that moment, the brain stops receiving oxygen. If an individual suffers the same situation repeatedly, the effects can be serious.

There are multiple causes of obstructive sleep apnea. Here are some of them:

  • Obesity.
  • Enlarged tonsils or adenoids.
  • Genetic factors.
  • Unhealthy lifestyle.
  • The shape of the respiratory tract.

Restless legs syndrome

Restless legs syndrome or Willis-Ekbom disease manifests with involuntary movements of the legs or other extremities during sleep. Although its causes aren’t known, it’s suspected that the key may lie in a dopamine imbalance.


Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder. It manifests with excessive sleepiness during the day. In this illness, the sufferer may suddenly and uncontrollably fall asleep. The reason behind the disease isn’t exactly known. However, it’s speculated that there’s an alteration of hypocretin, a key substance that regulates sleep.

Shift work sleep disorder

Shift work has a great impact on sleep cycles and an individual’s quality of life. They tend to alter circadian rhythms and can lead to insomnia or other associated disorders. Requesting specialized help facilitates better adaptation to these situations.

Night terrors are disturbing for children and adolescents. Psychological therapy can be beneficial. It allows them to alleviate the emotional burden of such experiences.


A study conducted by Marshall University (USA) indicates that parasomnias are a group of sleep disorders that appear during transitions or wakefulness. They’re extremely distressing experiences that sometimes arise with no apparent cause. They’re also associated with trauma, mental disorders, or diseases such as Parkinson’s. These are the most frequent parasomnias:

  • Nightmares.
  • Sleepwalking
  • Sleep paralysis.
  • Night terrors.
  • Waking up suddenly or being extremely disoriented.
  • Somniloquy in adults or children (talking in dreams).

Psychological therapies for sleep disorders

Psychological therapies for treating sleep disorders are an alternative to medication. We all know that when it’s difficult for us to fall asleep or we suffer from some alteration in this area, we often resort to tranquilizing drugs such as lorazepam. In fact, drugs are usually the first medical strategy we turn to.

However, in recent years, more attention has been given to the mental field, which offers another broader and more effective approach. It’s the kind that leaves medication aside and provides effective tools to the patient, in order to improve their sleep hygiene and psychological well-being. Let’s look at some of these more specialized and useful approaches.

1. Cognitive behavioral therapy for sleep disorders (CBT-i)

One of the most effective psychological therapies for sleep disorders is the Cognitive Behavioral Model for Insomnia or Sleep Disorders (CBT-I). An article published in Clinical Psychology and Special Education claims that six or eight sessions are enough to obtain positive results.

Moreover, this article claims that, at present, CBT-I is the most effective strategy available. It’s defined by the following:

  • Improving life habits.
  • Addressing any possible emotional dysregulation.
  • Working on the patient’s anxious ideas about their sleep problem.
  • Identifying the thoughts, behaviors, and attitudes that are reinforcing the problem.
  • Understanding the causes that feed back into sleep disorders.
  • Offering and integrating appropriate psychoeducational techniques to improve nightly rest.

2. Stimulus control therapy

Stimulus control therapy seeks to link the idea of the object of a bed with the experience of rest and relaxation. It’s a technique based on classical conditioning. The patient learns that the space where they lie down can’t be used to watch television, use their cell phone, read, eat, etc.

This model also aims to control all the circumstances or experiences that prevent restful sleep. It involves:

  • Sleep restriction. They can’t take naps or sleep in other places during the day.
  • Paradoxical intention. This is employed during the first days of therapy. It consists of reducing the anxiety that the patient usually has about sleeping. When they get to bed, they’re told to tell their brain to stay awake. In the end, the opposite will happen. It’s like trying to tell yourself not to think of a pink elephant.

One of the most effective treatments for sleep disorders is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT-I).

3. Relaxation training

Relaxation training is another interesting psychological therapy for sleep disorders. It’s an approach that offers multiple resources to the patient to improve the quality of their nightly rest. It trains their body and mind to reach a calmer state at the end of the day.

They must train and integrate the following techniques into their life habits:

  • Deep breathing.
  • Mindfulness techniques.
  • Jacobson’s progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Guided visualization. This involves imagining scenarios of great beauty and peace and associating them with relaxing bodily sensations.

The goal of relaxation training is to establish an exercise routine that the individual will carry out before going to sleep. Gradually, their body and mind will get used to these practices, and sleep will flow with greater harmony and quality.

Final recommendations

Before concluding our article, we should mention that the psychological therapies for sleep disorders we’ve described here are both useful and effective. Moreover, they can save us from resorting to drugs. In addition, they have the advantage that they’re short-term psychological treatments.

However, often, behind sleep disturbances, lie medical conditions. These mustn’t be neglected. For instance, conditions such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome require specific approaches that address, not only the issue of a good night’s rest but the sufferer’s health as well.

Finally, don’t hesitate to consult with specialists in these areas if you’re having trouble sleeping. After all, sleeping better means living better.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.