I am a Weiss Presidential Fellow and Professor of Psychology, Communication and Education at Cornell University. I have been a sleep educator/researcher since 1969 and in my 47 years on the Cornell faculty I have had the pleasure of teaching over 65,000 undergraduates. Hopefully my experience will be of help to you in these columns and on my website.

Do you fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow? Do you need an alarm clock to wake up? Do you sleep extra hours on weekends?

If you answered “yes” to these questions (and to others we’re about to ask you), you’re sleepier than you should be. You might feel alert enough to get through the day, but you’re probably performing well below your potential. Most people don’t value sleep and have no idea how tired they really are. There are various elaborate and expensive laboratory tests that objectively measure sleepiness, but we can make a pretty thorough assessment based on how you respond to The Maas Robbins Alertness Questionnaire (MRAQ). The 20 statements help differentiate between well-rested and sleep-deprived individuals.

The Maas Robbins Alertness Questionnaire (MRAQ)©2011, Dr. James B. Maas and Rebecca S. Robbins

Please indicate true or false for the following statements:True False

T F 1. I often need an alarm clock in order to wake up at the appropriate time.

T F 2. It’s often a struggle for me to get out of bed in the morning.

T F 3. Weekday mornings I often hit the snooze bar several times.

T F 4. I often feel tired and stressed out during the week.

T F 5. I often feel moody and irritable, little things upset me.

T F 6. I often have trouble concentrating and remembering.

T F 7. I often feel slow with critical thinking, problem solving and being creative.

T F 8. I need caffeine to get going in the morning or make it through the afternoon.

T F 9. I often wake up craving junk food, sugars, and carbohydrates.

T F 10. I often fall asleep watching TV.

T F 11. I often fall asleep in boring meetings or lectures or in warm rooms.

T F 12. I often fall asleep after heavy meals or after a low dose of alcohol.

T F 13. I often fall asleep while relaxing after dinner.

T F 14. I often fall asleep within five minutes of getting into bed.

T F 15. I often feel drowsy while driving.

T F 16. I often sleep extra hours on the weekends.

T F 17. I often need a nap to get through the day.

T F 18. I have dark circles around my eyes.

T F 19. I fall asleep easily when watching a movie

T F 20. I rely on energy drinks or over-the-counter medications to keep me awake.

If you answered “true” to four or more of these statements, consider yourself seriously sleep-deprived. Future website columns will address this issue in detail.

What does it mean to be “sleep deprived”?
You are sleep deprived if you’re not meeting your personal sleep need, which for most adults is between 7.5 and 9 hours per night. And the term “sleep deprived” certainly applies to anyone who has difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, waking up too early, and/or has poor sleep quality. Most Americans are at least modestly sleep deprived. While the average person claims to get 7.1 hours of sleep per night, sleep researchers find that those claiming seven to eight hours per night really slept closer to 6. It seems we’re so sleep-deprived, we aren’t even aware of how little we rest.

What are the signs of sleep deprivation?
Predictably, the most common symptom is fatigue. But as obvious as that seems, many people become so accustomed to feeling chronically tired that they accept it as normal. This same attitude is often applied to other symptoms such as mood swings, irritability, anxiety and difficulty concentrating, remembering, learning and interacting socially. You may feel you’re a loner, a slow-learner, or just not a vibrant or ambitious person, when in fact your fatigue has created a shell around your true personality and abilities.

People don’t recognize that sleepiness is not “normal,” and something must be done to break the cycle. Signs of chronic sleep deprivation can also include frequent infections/illnesses, blurred vision, changes in appetite, and depression. While these symptoms may be relatively minor and seem unrelated at first, they can be the precursors of life-shortening afflictions. Without proper treatment, they can grow to negatively impact your health and quality of life.

What are the most common causes of sleep deprivation?
The biggest and most prevalent is our society’s persistent belief that sleep is a luxury rather than a necessity. When it seems there just aren’t enough hours in the day, sleep is the first thing we cut, though ironically if we slept more, we’d be more efficient and productive. The advent of the Internet, buzzing Blackberrys and 24/7 entertainment has compounded it. Abusing sleep with blissful machismo is now deeply engrained in our global society. Beyond this general notion, there are many specific contributing factors to sleep deprivation. Temporary sleep-loss, for instance, is often triggered by passing stressors, such as a headache, toothache, indigestion, back problems, cold, flu or jetlag. While these causes are certainly real and frustrating, they’re relatively easy to treat.

Anxiety is the most common cause of short-term sleep-loss, and it can last for weeks. Nervousness about money, your marriage or relationship, losing or finding a job, your weight or other health concerns and even boredom, can all make you toss and turn.

Long-term sleep loss is occasionally caused by environmental factors—your job, if you’re a night-shift worker; where you live, if it’s in a noisy area—but it more commonly stems from medical conditions such as arthritis, diabetes, epilepsy, ulcers and heart disease (among others), as well as consistent drug (including caffeine) or alcohol use. There are also a number of sleep-specific medical conditions that can severely impact and disrupt rest. These include sleep apnea, narcolepsy, restless leg syndrome and upwards of 86 other distinguishable disorders.

More than a third of people who suffer from chronic insomnia also have psychiatric conditions such as depression and schizophrenia, as well as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxieties or phobias. Sleep and psychiatric problems tend to go hand-in-hand—when you’re not sleeping well, life appears more grim; when life appears grim, it’s harder to rest. Trouble sleeping can even be an early sign of forthcoming psychiatric problems, so it’s important to talk to a doctor if symptoms arise or persist. For most patients, when an underlying mental condition is treated, sleep habits improve.

How can I “cure” my sleep deprivation?
It’s simple: Sleep better and sleep more. Most people need to rest just one extra hour per night to stay completely alert all day. It’ll take a few weeks to effectively change your schedule to accommodate this, but eventually you should be waking up naturally without an alarm clock. After just a few nights of meeting your personal sleep quotient by improving your sleep strategies, you should feel a notable difference. How do you change? We’ll explain all of that in great detail in future columns. Meanwhile, sleep tight and sweet REMs!