If you find yourself stifling a yawn this week, you’re in good company. The recent change to Daylight Savings Time will have many Americans hitting snooze and struggling to get by on an hour less sleep.
So, it’s fitting that that this week is designated as Sleep Awareness Week, helping bring attention to sleep as a crucial part of health and well-being. Here at Menninger, we understand the impact sleep can have on quality of life. That’s why, with help from our donors and philanthropic partners, Menninger researchers and clinicians are advancing new ways to help people sleep more soundly.
Chief among these is a new wearable technology that will safely monitor hospitalized patients at night without disrupting sleep and a comprehensive protocol using multimodal techniques, including cognitive behavioral therapy, to treat insomnia. Menninger researchers are at the forefront of understanding how poor sleep contributes to increased suicide risk and relapse with mood disorders.
The growing body of evidence on sleep is clear: Sleep is incredibly important to physical and mental health. Menninger's Mary Rose, PsyD, DBSM, CBSM, director of the Sleep Medicine Service, draws on her expertise in sleep to share a few strategies to improve your sleep.
“If something is bothering you during the day, it is absolutely going to rear its head when it is dark,” Rose says. “So making sure to ‘avoid avoidance’ and make a plan of action in the day is essential.”

Understand Your Personal Sleep Needs

“Sometimes people think, ‘I have to get seven or eight hours of sleep at night,’ but there is no hard or fast number for everyone,” Rose explains. “We all have our own sleep time needs and a natural circadian sleep rhythm, which guides when we sleep. Some of us need a little less sleep, some a little more.”
It is also normal for people to wake briefly after several hours of sleep at the beginning of the night, and then return to sleep. This allows us to check our environment and surroundings after dissipating the first chunk of critical sleep time. We likely evolved this way as a strategy to watch out for predators at night. Sleep also changes as we get older, and wake up more often, Rose adds.

Go to Bed Only When You’re Sleepy

Establishing a consistent sleep schedule is a good idea, and it does not have to be overly rigid. Rose recommends waking up at the same time each morning on work or school days, and within an hour of that time on days off, to reinforce your body’s natural circadian rhythm. However, when you go to bed should follow your body’s sleepiness cues, instead of the clock.
“Most people with chronic insomnia actually have pretty good sleep habits,” Rose says. “But if you are too rigid about your bedtime, and go to bed because you are bored or done for the day instead of because you are actually sleepy, then you will likely set yourself up for failure. Sleep requires a state of relaxation; it cannot be forced — one of its greatest enemies is performance anxiety.”

Challenge Catastrophic Thoughts

Rose suggests challenging any dysfunctional or catastrophic thoughts that fill your head in the wee hours. Ask yourself, “How likely is it that I will not fall asleep at all on any given night? Will I really lose my job tomorrow if I don’t sleep well tonight?” Probably not. Recognizing and challenging these thoughts will help you to develop more functional beliefs about your sleep.
“People put a huge amount of pressure on themselves to sleep,” says Rose. “But sleep is not a competitive sport. If you are beating yourself up about not being able to go to sleep, it is going to put more stress on you and make it that much more difficult to fall asleep.”

Manage Nightmares

Rose often guides patients through a process called imagery rehearsal training (IRT) to help them better manage nightmares. IRT involves journaling about nightmares in the daytime when they are less frightening and rescripting them into a more tolerable script. As some people have a hard time with radically rescripting their nightmares, she will often take a stepwise approach to progressively make the nightmare less frightening and more aligned with where the dreamer is in their therapeutic process. For example, if you have a nightmare about being trapped in a dark cellar, in the rescript you might have a lamp to illuminate the way out.
Follow these three steps to control nightmares:
  1. Jot down a description of a recent nightmare. If your most recent nightmare is too upsetting to think about, then pick another. It should not be your worst nightmare. Write using first-person present tense in as much detail as possible.
  2. Think of a way to change the nightmare. Rely on your intuition to make an appropriate change. Sometimes even a minor change, such as being able to add light into a nightmare in which you can’t see anything, is helpful.
  3. Set aside 10 minutes each day to imagine this altered version of the nightmare. Simply paint a mental picture of the altered version and practice it.
When we allow ourselves to think about something, it lessens the anxiety propagated by avoidance.  ]When we speak it out loud (if even to ourselves) and write it down, we also process its content and are better able to manage its fearful elements. Over several sessions, the nightmares become less frightening, and in many cases subside completely — evidence of the strong link between the waking and sleeping mind.