One of the most common concerns students report is difficulty sleeping. Sometimes this is a temporary reaction to a stressful situation, and sometimes it’s more long-lasting. Getting sufficient sleep and keeping a regular sleep-wake schedule is important for academic performance, overall health, safety, and for maintaining emotional wellness. Frequent sleep difficulties (i.e. difficulty falling asleep, wakefulness, notable increased or reduced sleep) can contribute to low mood, increased anxiety, reduced concentration, and difficulty consolidating new information. Poor sleep can also lead to increased risk for falling asleep at the wheel while driving and for substance abuse. But how can you get more and better sleep when you have so much to do?
Establishing Healthy Sleep Habits
Sleeping 7 hours a night is ideal for people between the ages of 18 - 60 and 8-10 hours a night is recommended for teens aged 13-18. It may be difficult to make time for sleep when academic demands are high, but sleep is a very important, and overlooked, part of performing well in class, studying, writing papers, and doing your best on tests. Campus resources such as individualized scheduling at The Study (Jenkins Hall, Third Floor 410-617-2104) can help you carve out time for both class preparation AND sleep.
Sometimes students find it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get restful, restorative sleep. The following sleep habits can help your sleep.
- Create an environment that is conducive to sleep: quiet, dark, uncluttered, and cool (but not cold). Consider turning off your phone/removing digital technology from your sleeping area and using eyeshades or ear plugs.
- Try to go to sleep and wake up at roughly the same time each day, regardless of class schedule. This conditions your body to fall asleep regularly.
- Avoid exercise shortly before going to bed.
- Avoid “pm” (approximately 3-5 hours before you want to try to fall asleep) caffeine.
- Turn off all “screens” – tv, phone, tablet, and computer – at least half an hour before bed.
- Establish a consistent "wind down" routine about an hour before your bedtime.
- Keep naps short (20-25 minutes) so they don’t interfere with night-time sleep, and try to nap early enough that you can get out into the sunlight afterwards to “reset” your internal clock.
- Minimize alcohol use. Alcohol creates a temporary drowsiness but decreases REM sleep is necessary for learning and memory consolidation.
Siestas: The Value of Power Napping
A siesta is a brief nap taken in the early afternoon in many tropical climates closer to the equator. In these “siesta cultures” such as Spain, Mexico, Ecuador, and Nigeria, as many as 60% of citizens may take a daytime nap 4 or more times per week. In the United States, daytime naps are more common in southern states like Florida than in northern states like Pennsylvania and New York. Traditionally, siestas served as a daily break to rest and spend time with family when the sun is high and hot and energy may be low post-lunch. However, studies have shown that “power naps” – naps of about 20 minutes – may also increase energy and help consolidate memories and cement new learning. One study found that a 20-minute nap was more effective than a cup of coffee in decreasing daytime sleepiness. However, it also found that a 90-minute nap was too long and resulted in even greater tiredness. So, if you’ve been studying all morning for a big test at later in the day, go ahead and take a nap – but keep it short!
Addressing the Impact of Stress on Sleep
Engaging in activities that reduces feelings of stress and enhances your sense of well-being will also contribute to easier and more restful sleep. The following can help you manage stress:
- In the 30 minutes before bed, take time purposefully de-stress. Consider mindfulness meditation, journaling, reading, yoga breathing or stretching, or prayer. You can also listen to our Body Scan Sleep Relaxation recording.
- Try to exercise or engage in physical activity daily.
- Create time for connecting with others and doing things you enjoy. Even during the busiest semester, taking time to do those things that remind you there is life outside of school will create a sense of perspective that makes it easier to sleep.
- Address ongoing sources of emotional stress. Try speaking with a counselor about any conflicts, losses or other stressors, to help you get back on track.
It is also important to address any physical or mental health concerns that may be interfering with quality sleep. These include:
- Depression and/or anxiety that produces worrisome thoughts that can impact sleep.
- Sleep apnea, or interrupted breathing, that can cause sleep that feels restless and non-restorative.
- Heartburn or acid reflux.
- Chronic pain or any other physical condition that interferes with sleep.
If you are struggling with any of these conditions, Student Health and Education Services (Seton Court 02a, 410-617-5055) and the Counseling Center are here to help. If you would like to make an appointment with a counselor please call 410-617-2273, stop by our office located in Humanities 150, or schedule an appointment online. To learn more check out these other useful resources:
The Counseling Center located in Humanities 150 is open M-F from 8:30am until 5pm (EST) and closed when the university is closed. If you would like to make an appointment with a counselor, schedule an appointment online, stop by our office, or call 410-617-2273.