For a number of reasons, many university students, possibly the majority, have difficulties with sleep, both in terms of the quantity of sleep they get, and the quality of their sleep (e.g., trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, bad dreams). Due to factors such as irregular daytime routines (early morning classes on some days, late nights on others), all-nighters or very late-nighters around exam time, no one (i.e., parents) to supervise their sleep schedule, high workloads and high stress levels, many students are not getting enough sleep.
The consequences of sleep deprivation can be quite serious, impacting our physical health, our mental health, and our ability to function optimally during the day. We may be very sleepy during classes, our mood may be down, we may be irritable and have difficulty controlling our emotions, we may have trouble concentrating, remembering or problem-solving. A recent study even showed that sleep problems predicted less positive social ties at university.
Sleep should not be something that you do only after you’ve finished doing everything else that you need to do. Sleep is an important component of any healthy and productive day. Although better sleep could make you happier, healthier and, maybe even safer, changing your sleep habits can be very difficult. The specialty of sleep psychology studies sleep and treatment for sleep disorders. There are a number of suggestions that come out of this work.
- A healthy lifestyle, in general, can be helpful in terms of improving sleep. For example, exercise is good, but not too close to bedtime, or it can actually interfere with sleep. Don’t use caffeine, nicotine or alcohol to wind down. Alcohol might make you sleepy at bedtime, but as it wears off, it can lead to night time awakenings. Watch what you eat – don’t eat a heavy or spicy meal close to bedtime.
- It is important to go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time every day, even on weekends. Your sleep pattern should be the same no matter what day of the week it is. If you can’t keep it exactly the same, don’t sleep more than an hour later on weekends. As soon as you get up, get out into the bright light, to let your body know that it’s time to get going. Do not take lengthy day time naps. In fact, try not to take daytime naps at all. If you must nap to refresh yourself, do it as early in the day as possible and for only a short time (20 minutes). Set an alarm.
- Have a bedtime in mind and start winding down beforehand. Don’t work right up until the time you try to sleep. Do develop some kind of calming pre-sleep routine or ritual. Read something relaxing, have a warm bath or shower, a decaf tea or warm milk, try calm breathing (see this blog), or attempt to relax your body, or try meditating. Lower the light level in your room. This will signal your brain to make melatonin, the hormone that brings on sleep. There is evidence that the blue light given off by your phone or tablet signals your body to stop making melatonin, and to stay alert. What you see on your electronic devices can also be stimulating psychologically. Current advice is to put your phone or tablet down about an hour before bedtime. Perhaps you can get into the habit of reading for pleasure before bed.
- Rather than lying in bed thinking of all the things you’re worried about, schedule a “worry time” before bed when you can sit quietly, write down all of the things that have you concerned, and then put down a plan for how you will deal with them in the coming day or days. Then, let them go for the day.
- Do make your bed a comfortable place. For some people, getting into a neatly-made bed makes it more inviting. If your room (or mind) is noisy, think about having a fan running, or some white noise on your phone. Make sure your room is dark (or wear a sleep mask) and relatively cool. As much as possible, don’t use your bed for things other than sleeping. You want your bed to become strongly associated with sleeping only.
- If you can’t fall asleep within 20 minutes or so, get up and do something else relaxing (find a comfy chair, keep the lights dim, listen to soft music, read something enjoyable), and head back to bed when you feel ready to sleep. Lying in bed awake night after night leads you to associate the bed with wakefulness, frustration, and maybe even anxiety.
- Watch what you say to yourself when you are lying in bed. Don’t watch the clock (turn it away from your view) because that can lead you to think things like “I’ll never get to sleep”, “Now I can’t get enough sleep to function tomorrow.”, “I’ve lost the control over my ability to sleep”, which will only keep you awake. Don’t plan on catching up on your sleep the next day by napping. Realize that you can function on limited sleep, just not as well as you will when your sleep improves. Tell yourself things like “It’s okay. I can handle this.”, “This is tough now, but I’m working to make it better.”, “I’m just going to be patient”, “I will just try to relax and drift off to sleep”.
Take care and sleep well,
This blog is not a substitute for psychological counselling. If you do feel that you are currently in a situation in which you could use some additional help with issues that you are dealing with, please check out the resources presented here.