I’ve been thinking a lot about sleep lately. It is winter break from school, and so I’ve been staying up later, and waking up at odd times, to accommodate my son’s schedule. I am not usually a good sleeper – I’m one of those people whose mind races the minute they lay down – but I’m usually in a pretty good routine of going to sleep right after I put my son in bed, and getting up a half hour before he has to be up for school/camp. All of that has been blown over the last two weeks. I also cut my cable, so I lost the two clocks (on the two cable boxes) in my house that I regularly look at. It’s on my to-do list to go buy a few clocks. Since I have no idea what time it is, I’m not getting much done, and that makes me frustrated.
My Routine Helps Me Be Productive
When do you feel most productive? Because of my routine, I am usually pretty productive in the mornings. I have noticed, since I’ve been off my routine, however, that I’m not getting a whole lot done. I’m not going many places, just laying around with my son. I’ve been starved for a nap in the afternoon, I’m sluggish when I get home from work (and just want to lay on the couch and play Bejeweled), and I don’t want to go to the gym (something I usually LOVE, because it’s my podcast/run time).
Most research shows that we don’t get enough sleep, and our deficit is seriously hurting our productivity, our physical health, even our mental well being. I know this is true for me – if I don’t snooze, I lose. When sleep deprived, I am cranky, feel very emotional, my body hurts, and I don’t get anything done. I have accepted that I need 9 – 10 hours a night, and I plan for it. I know people who exist on 5 – 6 hours of sleep – that is not me. I’d be a zombie….
College is a time when students thrive on being barely coherent. They are sleepy in the daytime, inattentive, hyperactive to try to keep awake, wake up numerous times at night,and have insomnia. Why? College students face pressure to succeed, increased work loads, depression, academic performance issues, financial issues, trying to multitask, fear of the future, increased responsibility and independence, and peer pressure. These stress issues interfere with college student sleep.
It is well documented that sleep deprived students perform much worse than those who get adequate rest. Brown University’s website lists common health issues among college students. They describe how REM sleep is particularly important for consolidating newly learned information, and a large proportion of REM sleep occurs towards the end of the night. So studying most of the night for a test, and then sleeping only a few hours, decreases your ability to remember new information.
More and more students are turning to self-medication to deal with sleep issues. Students (and their professors, too!) are turning to sleeping pills, stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, depressants like alcohol and marijuana, or prescription medications (obtained legally or illegally) like Xanax and ADHD medications like Adderall.
Self-medication is generally not a good way to cope with pressure or stress. Self-medicating can lead to addiction, disrupted body cycles, and physical or mental illness. I’ve had personal experience with trying to control my body, without healing my mind. While medications may be prescribed as an “easy-fix,” they are almost never healing for the real issues.
What Can I do Then?
Recognize the issue – college is stressful! There is no way around that. But there are things you can do to minimize the physical and mental effects of sleep deprivation on your body. Shawn Stevenson researched and discovered some fascinating insights on sleep: Sleep Smarter: 21 Proven Tips to Sleep Your Way To a Better Body, Better Health and Bigger Success.
Here are five ways to cope with sleep issues in college or in life:
1. Commit to Sleep
If you are going to invest in a college education, invest in your sleep! Proper sleep patterns can help you remember, focus, and retain the information you are learning better than if you are sleep starved. So, get committed to your sleep. You may read one less page, click one less link, watch one less episode, or make one less Tweet – but it’s worth it. Stop procrastinating. Go to bed (preferably, without your phone)!
2. Have a Separate Alarm Next to Your Bed
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been awakened at night to check the dinging on my phone. Or, that I forgot to set the alarm on my phone. What’s the answer to this problem? Invest in a REAL alarm clock! Set it to go off every day at the same time (mine goes off at 7:20 every weekday, and 8:30 on the weekends), and then stick to that. Getting up at the same time every day is important to your routine.
You might also set an alarm to go to bed. I’m a big believer in alarms (I use the iHandy app on my iPhone) – I have one that goes off every day when my son should get out to wait for the bus, when I should leave school to get him off the bus, when I should check my bills every Friday, etc. If you are not mindful, time gets away from you!
3. Establish a Ritual
My bedtime ritual looks like this:
8:30 – son and I meet in the bathroom for teeth brushing, vitamins, and singing
8:45 – Time to read to my son before bed.
9:00 – Turn off his light, close his door, tell him how much I love him
9:02 – go back to bathroom wash my face, get some water, take my medicine
9:10 – get in bed, look at schedule for next day, write down any last thoughts
9:15 – read until nighty nite!
Getting into a ritual makes sure I don’t miss anything essential to my success – my medication, my daily calendar items, or brushing my teeth. It works like clockwork – because I have it set up that way.
4. Get some Exercise!
But, not before bedtime! Being active too close to your scheduled bedtime may make you restless, but exercise is shown to increase your ability to fall asleep. If you think about our evolutionary history, being active is part of who we are as a species. Even just a thousand years ago, if we didn’t move, we didn’t eat. As hunter-gatherers, we could not sit on our butts (as we often do now) and survive. Scientists hypothesize that humans evolved from our ape-like ancestors because we needed to run long distances – perhaps to hunt animals or scavenge carcasses on Africa’s vast savannah – and the ability to run shaped our anatomy, making us look like we do today. So, get up and move!
5. Kill the Lights – Even Your Phone!
To prevent experiencing what expert Michael J. Breus calls “junk sleep” consider:
- turning off TV’s, tablets, and other screens an hour before bedtime
- putting your phone in a drawer or leaving it in another room
- getting black-out curtains for summertime or sleeping with an eye mask
- reading a genuine paper book instead of a tablet before bed—remember those?
There’s no sense getting to bed on time if we’re getting poor sleep throughout the night.
If you are committed to making it through college, set yourself up for success. Take your sleep seriously, and make sure others know you are serious. While the occasional late night rendezvous is a great way to socially and emotionally connect to your peers, doing it five nights a week will be detrimental to your health and well-being. In the immortal words of Samuel L. Jackson, “Go the f^&% to Sleep.”