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 a emotional stability. Frequent poor sleep can result in difficulty concentrating and in consolidating new information, and can contribute to low mood and anxiety. 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
First, it is important to prioritize sleep even when you are very busy. Sleeping 8-9 hours a night is ideal for college-aged adults. You may feel that you don’t have time to 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. This TED Talk describes how crucial sleep is for memory to function properly.
Sometimes students find it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or get restful, restorative sleep. The following good sleep habits can help maximize your ability to sleep easily and well.
- Create an environment that is conducive to sleep: quiet, dark, uncluttered, and cool (but not cold). And consider eyeshades or ear plugs if living with a roommate makes creating these conditions difficult. Consider turning off your phone and removing digital technology from your sleeping area.
- Set a regular sleep schedule. 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. This could include taking a warm shower, enjoying a cup of non-caffeinated herbal tea, and brushing your teeth.
- If you need to nap, keep it short (20-25 minutes) so it doesn’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. Alcohol creates a temporary drowsiness but decreases REM sleep necessary for learning and memory consolidation. It results in more fitful, less quality sleep.
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 3 or 4, go ahead and take a nap – but keep it short!
Ways to Reduce Stress
Performing regular self-care 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 tame stress:
- In the 30 minutes before bed, take time to relax and 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 daily. If you’re not a gym person, consider taking a long walk (ideally 30 minutes or more) or doing a yoga exercise online.
- Create time for connecting with others and doing things you enjoy. Even in the midst of 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 worried and negative thoughts that can be hard to control and keep you up at night.
- Sleep apnea, or interrupted breathing, is more common in those who are overweight or who have consumed alcohol prior to sleeping. It 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, the Health Center (Seton Court 02a, 410-617-5055) and the Counseling Center (Humanities Room 150, 410-617-CARE) are here to help. Also, if you want to learn more, check out these other useful resources:
American Academy of Sleep Medicine
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