Mental Health: How to Get on a Sleep Schedule

Being consistent is important in maintaining a functioning sleep schedule. With the changes in daily routines and responsibilities, it is crucial to set up and maintain a sleep schedule In today’s Operation Health@Home mental health post, Home Base’s Dr. Lauren Brenner offers some education and tips to ensure you have the tools to fix your sleep schedule. 

The Two-Sleep Process

The sleep drive and circadian rhythm (or the biological clock) are two sleep processes, but each has an individual role. They both need to be in sync with each other to set us up for higher quality sleep. Together, the sleep drive and circadian rhythm tell our bodies when it is time to sleep, and when we need to be awake.

Let’s walk through each of them:

Sleep Drive: This tells us the intensity of our need for sleep. Ideally, when we wake up in the morning our sleep drive is low because we have just had a replenishing night of sleep. An analogy commonly used is to think of our sleep drive like our appetite- right after we finish a meal, we typically are not hungry but as the day goes on we develop an appetite. The sleep drive works in the same way, getting stronger throughout the day. Therefore, we want the sleep drive to be at its highest, most intense point when we are getting ready to go to sleep at night. After several bad nights of sleep, people will often report “crashing,” which demonstrates the sleep drive at work.

Circadian rhythm: This is our internal biological clock, strongly cued by light and darkness, that runs on an approximately 24-hour cycle. We have internal clocks that link into processes such as digestion and temperature as well. The biological clock requires consistency in the day to day or it will be thrown off. It is almost like we are chronically experiencing jet lag and expecting our body to quickly catch up to when we tell it to be awake or asleep even when it is not truly ready. We have all heard the terms “early birds” and “night owls.” Much of our tendencies to gravitate to being a morning or an evening person is based on genetics.  

Putting it all Together

When these two processes are properly working togetherour biological clock ensures it is strong and not sending out too much sleep drive when we are supposed to be awake and productive, and vice versa. This is why it is important to know if you are typically an early bird (morning person) or a night owl (evening person) when setting up your sleep schedule 

Let’s use an example to illustrate this. For someone who is a night owl the sleep drive will peak later in the evening and the biological clock will send out stronger signals at night in comparison to an early bird. However, this person needs to get up early in the morning, which is where problems arise. In the morning, this person will struggle to wake up as they are working against their biological clock and the sleep drive has not been fully replenished (like leaving a meal still hungry). You can apply this as well to someone who is an early bird and tries to stay up late. This is often where people become anxious or frustrated around sleep, and make adjustments to compensate for poor sleep, like using more caffeine, taking naps, going to bed early, or sleeping in.

What can you do to set yourself up for optimal sleep based on these processes?

Keep a consistent sleep schedule. Even if you have had a poor night’s sleep, or want to sleep in a bit later on the weekend, try to resist the temptation to shift your sleep schedule. Our body needs consistency, and irregular sleep patterns or working against our biological clock will cause confusion in our minds and bodies about sleep.

Check-in with yourself about your tendency to be a morning vs evening person. Do you prefer to stay up late or get up early? During this time, when there is heightened uncertainty and anxiety, keeping a consistent sleep schedule based on your usual daily responsibilities is crucial- think about when you need to typically wake up each day for work, school, childcare, etc. and use that as your daily wake up time.

Set a goal for bedtime each night. This may be challenging, uncomfortable, and difficult to resist the urge to sleep in or stay up late. An important take-home point, is that we cannot catch up on sleep!

If you find that you have significant sleep disruptions, we hope that you consider reaching out to a provider to better understand what might be contributing to the problems and to learn about evidence-based treatment options.  Home Base is currently offering a virtual group therapy program for Veterans who have trouble sleeping. The treatment focuses on changing behaviors interfering with sleep, as outlined above, and you will work with your therapist on monitoring and adjusting your sleep schedule over the course of treatment.  Visit to learn more about our group offering, or call (617) 724-5202.

About the Author: Dr. Lauren Brenner is a clinical psychologist at Home Base. She completed her doctoral internship specializing in Dual Diagnosis presentations (PTSD-SUD) at the VA Boston Healthcare System, with additional rotations in the General Mental Health Clinic and Urgent Care Clinic. Dr. Brenner has received training in evidence-based treatments for PTSD, as well as co-occurring substance use, mood, and anxiety disorders, including Cognitive Processing Therapy, Prolonged Exposure, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia, and Seeking Safety. She has extensive training and experience in the provision of the evidence-based group, and individual treatment with military populations, and has a specialized interest in psychodiagnostic assessment and evaluation.