It’s been a long time since I graduated college, but I have some very clear memories of how I spent my time there. Of course I remember sitting in class, as well as out on the sunny quad, in the library, and at many a beer-soaked party. I also have lots of images of myself sitting at my desk into the wee hours, working on finishing up essays due the next morning or cramming for tests. Lots of sleep got sacrificed in the name of both having a good time and of getting good grades.
Back then, sleeplessness seemed like no big deal, but with the increased attention being paid to the health and cognitive effects of sleep deprivation, maybe it is time for college campuses to be paying closer attention to how their students are squandering their important rest time. The National Sleep Foundation has indicated that adults between the ages of 18 and 64 should be getting somewhere between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, and college students are probably not getting anywhere near this amount. The reasons are varied: in addition to social life and study imperatives, there are also the issues of anxiety and stress that afflict so many of those attending college today. Lindsey Bundrant is a nutrition major at California State University Northridge, and she acknowledge that getting enough sleep is hard. “Just being able to calm my mind to fall asleep is really hard to do,” she said in a recent interview given to The Sundial. “My focus and energy levels are very low. My motivation is even decreasing.”
She is not alone. A National College Health Assessment that was conducted in 2013 showed that the three top factors impacting students’ performance were stress, work and lack of sleep. Professors are taking note of the issue as well, particularly those who are teaching morning classes. Journalism professor Elizabeth Blakey advises, “Two ways to get around the effects of sleep deprivation are power naps, and also being sure that you eat a full breakfast. When students combine lack of sleep with lack of breakfast, then they’re not going to perform as well, especially in morning classes.”
According to the NCHA survey, students are feeling the effects of sleep deprivation frequently – nearly half admitted to feeling tired during the daytime three to five days out of each week. When asked why this is the case, many students had differing opinions. One stated, “We’re very active all the time and have a lot of homework and studying to do. I wish I could get more sleep because I wake up and I’m pretty exhausted.” The same student indicated that trying to make time for exercise is also making things more difficult, especially because many students only find time to do so late at night, when the increased level of activity may actually have a negative impact on their ability to sleep. According to fitness instructor Brandon Nate, “When we exercise, our nervous system is energized so when we workout late at night we are unable to calm the nervous system down which can lead to restlessness.” Still, he emphasizes the fact that getting a workout in can have a positive impact on the ability to sleep. He recommends getting the workout in early if possible. “One reason to get up early for that morning workout is that exercise has been shown to have a positive effect on our concentration ability, better preparing us for the day ahead.”
Still, not all students are blaming late night exercise or the lack of exercise for their inability to sleep. According to health center staff and health educators, there are a number of factors involved. Marianne Link is a professor of health who says, “Sleep difficulties get in the way of success. We encourage students to take a nap, but take a brief nap of no more than twenty minutes.” She also indicates that there are a number of habits that college students can get into that may work against their ability to fall asleep easily, including using their bed for purposes other than sleeping. If they are doing homework in their bed, they may be more comfortable but they are diminishing their mental association between the bed and sleep. She also recommends that they work to rid their bed of clutter, and clear out any books or papers that they may be tempted to leave around, and let themselves focus instead on sleep. “Sometimes it helps students to cover the face of a digital clock so that if they wake up they don’t see the time. It can be a distraction and make it difficult to fall back asleep.”
Another suggestion that Link makes is that students not remain in their bed if they are struggling to sleep. Instead she suggests that they get up and move around, or try to find a relaxing activity away from the bed and then return when they start to feel themselves getting drowsy again.
Link suggests that if students are having a tough time falling asleep on a regular basis, there are a number of important steps that they can take. These include immediately eliminating any late night exercise, taking a close look at caffeine usage after 2:00 in the afternoon, and eliminating the use of alcohol, which may make them fall asleep more easily but will then disrupt their sleep a few hours later and make it difficult to fall back to sleep. She also suggests that students having trouble avail themselves of their student health center, which is able to help them control stress and provide them with valuable feedback and advice on improving their sleep quality. She says, “As difficult as it might be for a student, I think it’s important to make sleep a priority.”