Sabrina Tropper of Counseling Works NYC: “Get enough light exposure during the daytime”

Get enough light exposure during the daytime. This is one of the most important elements that contribute to maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm — the roughly 24-hour internal cycle that our bodies engage in to regulate our sleep-wake cycle. Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the […]

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Get enough light exposure during the daytime. This is one of the most important elements that contribute to maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm — the roughly 24-hour internal cycle that our bodies engage in to regulate our sleep-wake cycle.

Getting a good night’s sleep has so many physical, emotional, and mental benefits. Yet with all of the distractions that demand our attention, going to sleep on time and getting enough rest has become extremely elusive to many of us. Why is sleep so important and how can we make it a priority?

In this interview series called “Sleep: Why You Should Make Getting A Good Night’s Sleep A Major Priority In Your Life, And How You Can Make That Happen” we are talking to medical and wellness professionals, sleep specialists, and business leaders who sell sleep accessories to share insights from their knowledge and experience about how to make getting a good night’s sleep a priority in your life.

As part of this interview series, we had the pleasure to interview Sabrina Tropper.

Sabrina Tropper, MA, LMHC is a licensed psychotherapist and founder of Counseling Works NYC, a New York City based private practice. She is a holistic therapist specializing in trauma.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about your background and your backstory?

I am a licensed psychotherapist with a small private practice in New York City, called Counseling Works NYC, which I founded in 2018. My approach to therapy is holistic, wellness-based and I work mostly with adults and adolescents with a history of trauma, using a type of therapy called EMDR (take a look at if interested).

Prior to being a therapist in the big city, I had planned on becoming a professional saxophone player in Canada where I was raised (specifically in Montreal). After graduating and working for a short stint as a musician, however, I realized performing wasn’t for me, and I took some time to figure out what I wanted to do next. After having a great experience in my own therapy, I realized that I wanted to become a therapist myself. So, I went back to school in 2012 and the rest is history! In addition to being a music lover, I also really enjoy the arts of any kind, animals, and I have an interest in feminism and social justice.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this particular career path?

Initially, after I decided to become a therapist, I thought I would work in a hospital and maybe a clinic or someone else’s private practice. I didn’t really give much thought to the idea of opening up my own practice, since I really just wanted to focus on being a good therapist. After working in a few non-profit organizations while accumulating my hours (to become licensed), I realized there were so many systemic issues, both at the governmental level and within the organizations themselves, that my clients were not really being helped. Add to that a persistent lack of funding and a never-ending need for therapeutic services, and I felt completely burned out. So, once I was fully licensed, I moved on to a private psychiatric group practice, and from there started my own part-time private practice on the side until I had enough clients to make it full-time. Now, I only work with the clients that I am best trained and suited for, which means that my existing clients are improving faster and feeling better, and I’m no longer burned out. It’s a win-win.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the sleep and wellness fields? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?

As a therapist, I spend most of my time working with people to address what is getting in the way of their emotional well-being. Because my approach is holistic, meaning that I am interested in the whole individual from the inside and out, sleep quality is an essential part of this, so and I always try to ask about it when starting with someone new. Although I am not an expert in sleep therapy specifically, I have dealt with some form of sleep related issue(s) with virtually all of my clients at some point in their therapy. I have come to realize that good mental health is inextricably linked to high quality, restorative sleep. In my opinion, good sleep is essential for mental health.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I must admit that I struggled with this question because there are several! The one I settled on, had a really big impact on me as a teenager, entitled: The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff. This book is part of a set of two, the other one is called: The Te of Piglet. And yes, the author uses Winnie the Pooh characters to illustrate life principles according to Taoism. True to form, the book itself is whimsical, fun and really doesn’t take itself too seriously, which I always found appealing.

For me, reading this book was life changing in a subtle way, in that it opened my eyes to an alternative perspective on life. I opened it for the first time on a 6–7-hour bus ride from New York City where I had gone to visit a friend, back to Montreal. I was about 17 or 18 years old, and in a particularly angsty period as I was trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. (Spoiler alert: it took many more years to actually figure that out, Winnie the Pooh didn’t really solve that.) And so, I opened the book on a crowded bus with a baby screaming in the seat behind me and read, ironically, for the first time about the concept of “letting go.” Which, as anyone who struggles with anxiety would understand, did not come easily to me, irrespective of the screaming baby.

What really struck a chord with me, however, is that you don’t always need to know where to go or what to ‘do’ in order to live your life. Letting go, a concept that babies seem to understand intuitively, while most adults have mostly forgotten, is so simple that it was enough to snap me out of my angst long enough to feel at peace momentarily. That moment, was the first of many that I still think back to when reflecting on my journey and practicing mindfulness with my clients today.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Truthfully, I’m not much of Life Quote kind of person. I don’t hate them, just don’t really use them much. However, there is a saying that a former professor of mine, one of my personal favorites, used to repeat to us when we had questions about client-related issues in graduate school. When presented with a new therapist quandary, he would almost always say, “Well, it depends.” Sometimes, not much more was said then that. Now I’ll admit, after laughing at first, hearing this over and over as a baby therapist was not especially comforting. However, I’ve come to realize the wisdom in it, and it has helped me many times when trying to figure things out in the therapy room on my own, from dealing with an ethical dilemma to deciding if someone needs urgent care. What I have come to realize from all this, is that no matter what background, identity, culture, or mental health diagnosis someone may have, no two people are alike. So, the lesson in this, I think, is to make zero assumptions in life, and you’ll be better able to manage the ambiguity that comes with this kind of work (if you’re a therapist like me), or in life in general.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. Let’s start with the basics. How much sleep should an adult get? Is there a difference between people who are young, middle-aged, or elderly?

Generally speaking, most adults need to get between 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. That said, there is some variation, and as with most guidelines, there are outliers who function perfectly well on more or less hours. However, there are some differences in the amount of sleep needed depending on age groups. For example, babies need the most sleep, ranging from 14 to 17 hours in a newborn. While teens need about 8 to 10 hours, young adults up to middle aged people need 7 to 9 hours. Older adults, defined as 65 years old and up, generally need 7 to 8 hours. So, current guidelines indicate that there isn’t a ton of variation in the amount of sleep needed once someone becomes an adult. However, research on sleep length and quality is always evolving, so these guidelines, although useful, should be taken as a rough guideline rather than a hard and fast rule.

Is the amount of hours the main criteria, or the time that you go to bed? For example, if there was a hypothetical choice between getting to bed at 10PM and getting up at 4AM, for a total of 6 hours, or going to bed at 2AM and getting up at 10AM for a total of 8 hours, is one a better choice for your health? Can you explain?

Good question. The amount matters, but it’s also the type of sleep and whether it’s restorative or not that really matters as well. Everyone has an internal sleep-wake ‘clock’ also known as a Circadian rhythm. Broadly speaking, the circadian rhythm is an internal/biological mechanism that regulates our sleep-wake cycle on a roughly 24-hour cycle. It is synchronized with the light-dark cycle outside (daylight), the timing of meals and physical activity. However, there is some variability in terms of individual tendencies towards staying up later versus earlier. And consistency matters. With the example you used in your question, although getting 6 hours of sleep on a consistent basis is not enough, an early bird would probably adapt much better to this schedule than someone who naturally gets sleepy later. So, the early bird would experience more restorative, higher quality sleep, and as a result, suffer less from sleep deprivation than the night owl, and vice versa. So, this depends a lot on the person, as well as on the timing and consistency of the sleep schedule itself.

As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for our readers. Let’s imagine a hypothetical 35 year old adult who was not getting enough sleep. After working diligently at it for 6 months he or she began to sleep well and got the requisite hours of sleep. How will this person’s life improve? Can you help articulate some of the benefits this person will see after starting to get enough sleep? Can you explain?

If you think of lack of sleep as a source of chronic stress, it might be easier to imagine the effects of poor sleep on both your body and mind. This is because sleep affects virtually every system in your body in some way, so being consistently deprived of it is just unhealthy. From a mental health perspective, it affects everything from mood stability, memory, impulsivity, decision making, concentration and focus, to substance use, and sexual functioning. And it goes both ways. Meaning that trouble sleeping can be both a symptom of a new mental health issue (like depression or anxiety) or it can exacerbate or even lead to a new one. So, the benefits of prioritizing sleep are that you protect your body, your mind, and you get the added benefit of showing up as your best self in all areas of life.

Many things provide benefits but they aren’t necessarily a priority. Should we make getting a good night’s sleep a major priority in our life? Can you explain what you mean?

Yes, we should absolutely make getting a good night’s sleep a priority! Not only for the reasons mentioned previously — numerous mental and physical health concerns, etc., — but better sleep also translates to a better quality of life. If you feel like you will lose valuable time needed to accomplish something by sleeping an extra hour, remember that your productivity decreases significantly with each hour of sleep lost per night. Not only are you more efficient and productive after a restful night’s sleep, but you are generally healthier, calmer, and happier as well. It’s not simply that better sleep is beneficial; in my opinion, it’s essential for health and wellbeing.

The truth is that most of us know that it’s important to get better sleep. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives? How should we remove those obstacles?

Outside of sleep deprivation that can’t be avoided, like becoming a new parent or becoming a caregiver, it tends to come down to these 3 issues: 1) prioritizing work or school; 2) bad habits accumulated over time; and 3) the perception that reduced sleep means increased ‘productivity’. Mind you, I believe that some of this is also fueled by societal expectations, which, especially in the US, involves rewarding people for working beyond their limits. But that’s a whole other topic in and of itself.

In terms of what can be done on an individual level, most of the time changing these habits involves a shift in mindset. You can start by asking yourself — honestly — whether getting enough sleep is a priority for you. You may answer reflexively “of course it is, I just can’t seem to do it,” or “honestly, no it isn’t.” If your answer is no, then ask yourself “why not?” Do a pros and cons list of what it means to maintain poor sleep, including things like having more hours in the day on the ‘pros’ side, and health consequences and decreased cognitive functioning on the ‘cons’.

If you answered, “of course it’s a priority,” then start here. Write down your activities in the evening as you are doing them, until you go to bed at night for at least 5 days in a row. After looking at your activity log, do you notice patterns, such as: working late, knowing deep down this is cutting into sleep time? Are you looking at social media or watching one too many episodes of that show, rationalizing that you’ll get more sleep on the weekend? If so, you are not actually prioritizing sleep, in reality. If this is the case for you, then ask yourself why this keeps happening, and try to answer yourself honestly. This question is the hardest part, and it may require asking others in your life to weigh in or taking a closer look at your priorities. Although daunting for some, or uncomfortable, this is the question that is most likely to inspire a real change.

Do you think getting “good sleep” is more difficult today than it was in the past?

Yes, without a doubt. The main reason for this, I feel, is technology and social media. Repeated exposure to electronics with bright screens at night doesn’t help, but it’s the behavior around electronics which, I believe, has the most impact on a person’s ability to sleep well. For example, many people use their cell phones as an alarm, so they always have their phones with them before going to sleep at night. With that comes instant access to social media, emails, news; not to mention constant notifications, and the ability to access anything using an internet connection and google.

With increased connectivity also comes increased expectations of others to read, respond, and connect virtually or otherwise. This interferes with natural boundaries that were in place decades ago, like leaving work at the office or ending a conversation in person before going home to sleep at night.

In the past, you may have been able to call a person’s home after meeting with them in person, but you would have had to risk someone else picking up the phone first, and needing to stand within the circumference allowed by the phone cord because not everyone had wireless phones back then. These issues may seem trivial on the surface, but technology has made communication so convenient that it’s almost considered lazy not to respond now. Back in the 80’s or 90’s (you can probably guess my age here…), this added inconvenience was enough to shut things down earlier in order to get some rest at night.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share “5 things you need to know to get the sleep you need and wake up refreshed and energized”? If you can, kindly share a story or example for each.

  1. Get enough light exposure during the daytime. This is one of the most important elements that contribute to maintaining a healthy circadian rhythm — the roughly 24-hour internal cycle that our bodies engage in to regulate our sleep-wake cycle. This process is extremely sensitive to light and darkness, which serves as an external indicator for when our bodies become alert and awake, or tired and sleepy. The best source of this is sunlight, but if you’re stuck inside all day, artificial light can help with this.
  2. Consistent sleep-wake schedule. Meaning that you are generally consistent with your bedtime and wake-up time. Of course, it’s OK to have some variation with this. But the better you are about going to bed and waking up at the same time every day, the more likely you are to feel naturally tired around the time you usually go to sleep.
  3. Time to “Wind-Down” at night. This refers to preparing yourself to transition from the high energy of the day to the calm and low energy associated with getting “sleepy.” An example of this would be turning the lights down low (or off), switching from screen time to a book or other calming activity. And engaging in a routine to mentally prepare for sleep, like changing to pajamas, brushing your teeth, and praying or playing soft music before getting into bed. Current recommendations suggest starting this process about 2 hours before going to bed.
  4. Creating a ‘distraction free zone’. This is often neglected. A distraction free zone involves creating the ideal environment in order maximize the possibility of falling asleep at the time that you are supposed to. For example, removing electronics from your room or placing them at a distance from your bed so it’s harder to get to. Setting an alarm to stop working or staring at your computer past a certain time. Using your bed only for sleep and sex. Setting boundaries with family members who like to start lengthy or heavy conversations at night, and suggesting they start earlier (maybe at dinner time instead) so that everyone can sleep better at night.
  5. Manage any Medical and/or Mental Health conditions. For example, going to the doctor regularly to make sure you are taking care of yourself, and any preexisting conditions are managed properly. Take needed medication as prescribed and engage in treatment to manage mental health conditions, such as going to therapy, taking psychotropic medication, spending time with loved ones, getting enough exercise, etc., If your body is in pain or your mental health is not the best, you are much more likely to struggle with insomnia or hypersomnia as a result.

What would you advise someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back to sleep?

I would advise them to try getting out of bed for a bit in order to avoid associating their bed with the inability to sleep. Try walking around a little bit or reading a book and see if you start feeling sleepy again.

If this doesn’t work, then ask yourself what may be bothering or worrying you? If there is something bothering you, then write it down and place it away from your bed as though you are sending yourself a message to put it away for now. It will be there in the morning or when I’m ready.

You could also try playing soft, relaxing music, put on a white noise machine, or listen to a Podcast that doesn’t require any ability to focus, such as the excellent “Sleep With Me” podcast. Then, try lying down again once you start to feel sleepy. If you still can’t sleep, try to accept that it might not happen tonight (which is normal on occasion), and make up your mind to use the time to ‘rest’ in bed instead. No need to beat yourself up about it, as that will only make it worse. You may end up falling asleep unintentionally this way.

What are your thoughts about taking a nap during the day? Is that a good idea, or can it affect the ability to sleep well at night?

So, this depends on a few things. First, some people just don’t do well with napping during the day no matter how hard they try. They just end up feeling groggy. Second, it’s generally best to prevent yourself from entering into deep sleep during the day, because this can make you feel groggy afterwards and make it harder to fall asleep at night. To avoid this, try sticking to a short power nap, between 10–20 minutes long, as this provides enough time to get some sleep while preventing you from entering into deep sleep. Personally, I love taking naps. I use them most often when I’m sleep deprived.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Esther Perel. Also, Michelle Obama, which I know, is unlikely… ☺

How can our readers further follow your work online?

They can take a look at my website’s blog here. I’m still working on building up content, so I welcome any suggestions or requests for articles. In the coming months, I will also have some mental health worksheets and tools listed on

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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