The sound of horns blaring can be startling—especially when you’re asleep at the wheel.

Scares, like nodding off at red lights, combined with involuntarily falling asleep in class—or any time he sat idly—convinced Tyler*, a University of Houston student, to seek help.

Tyler found relief at the Sleep and Anxiety Center of Houston (SACH), a clinical research center in UH’s department of psychology. The Center is directed by Candice Alfano, professor of psychology and licensed clinical psychologist. SACH offers low-cost, evidence-based clinical services for children and adults with sleep- and anxiety-related problems.

“We see a lot of college students who think they are suffering from a serious sleep disorder because they have trouble maintaining wakefulness during the day and can’t concentrate,” Alfano said.

After an extensive evaluation, Tyler’s treatment included learning to dedicate adequate time for sleep, keeping consistent bed and wake times, avoiding caffeine late in the day and reducing light exposure in the evening hours, while maximizing sunlight exposure in the morning.

In addition to helping students stay awake long enough to achieve academic success, the SACH team is committed to research. Currently, understanding the mental impact of Hurricane Harvey on youth is a priority at the clinic.

“We are interested in how sleep-wake patterns predict psychological responses to trauma over time,” Alfano explained. “Hurricane Harvey, while a devastating event, offers an important opportunity to understand these relationships among children right here in Houston.”

Funded by a $178,590 grant from the National Science Foundation, the study follows children originally assessed years before Hurricane Harvey. Researchers plan to examine how the children’s pre-disaster sleep patterns and emotional functioning predict risk or resilient outcomes related to a traumatic event.

According to Alfano, children who suffer from poor or inadequate sleep are much more likely to be adults who are anxious and troubled sleepers. Intervening early is key because these relationships are bidirectional, meaning one can worsen the other and escalate over time.

“More than 70 million Americans suffer from a sleep disorder, so our clinic serves a large and ever-growing need,” Alfano said.