By Michelle Shuai, Peer Health Advocate
Today marks the fourth day I’ve eaten ramen for lunch because I ran out of time to get lunch from the dining hall or the pit. Carrying a 26 credit course load and multiple extracurriculars along with a part-time job, it’s no surprise that I’ve lacked the time to take care of myself. Although I enjoy all of my classes and extracurriculars, this semester has still been extremely stressful and challenging to navigate.
I know that I am not alone. College students are constantly stressed out – we do not need to look at a scientific study or take a survey to know that this is true. Students are running from class to class, staying up late at Gleason, and ordering Starbucks late at night to cram for their exam the next morning. Stress is something that all of us experience in varying degrees, and this can lead to unhealthy emotions, demotivation, and feelings of self-doubt.
Although there is no magic trick to magically erase stress, there are techniques and tips that students can use to mitigate their stress. In my personal experience, learning to take breaks and getting at least 8 hours of sleep each night has been extremely helpful in improving my stress levels. In fact, there is a plethora of scientific evidence that supports a relationship between mental health, stress, and sleep quality. Studies demonstrate that students who report poor sleep habits and lack of sleep tend to experience poorer academic satisfaction and success, personal and social well-being, and physical/mental health outcomes compared to peers who maintain a regular sleep schedule and get enough sleep (1,2,3).
Sleep obviously has important impacts and implications for the many other aspects of our lives, which can be especially frustrating given academic expectations and workload that comes with being a college student. I used to think that even if I sleep more, I lose more time to study and complete assignments, which would result in worse academic performance. However, after being consistently sleep deprived throughout my entire sophomore year of college, I realized that sleep deprivation is a vicious cycle. I lost sleep to work on assignments, but then when I went to class, my attention span and ability to engage closely with the lecture was negatively impacted. As a result, when studying for exams, working on projects or essays, I tended to need to re-learn entire concepts, which ultimately resulted in more time spent being stressed over classes whilst attempting to grasp difficult ideas. Ultimately, this led to less time to sleep and I was set to repeat this all over again every time midterms and finals season rolled around.
Fixing my sleep schedule was not easy, and I still have those 5-hours-of-sleep days. However, there are definitely simple and easy ways to improve your sleep habits that will help with reducing stress and improving your sleep schedule. For starters, the Harvard Division of Continuing Education recommends those aged between 18 to 25 sleep between seven to nine hours per night (4). To help you achieve those seven to nine hours, here are some sleep hygiene tips from the National Sleep Foundation (5).
Tip 1: Cut down on evening screen time.
Using your phone or other electronic devices can excessively stimulate your brain and mental activity that affects circadian timing. The circadian rhythm “is a principal driver of your sleep routine” which essentially functions as an internal clock to help balance our alertness and drowsiness. It is influenced by light exposure – for example, when you are exposed to bright light, the brain signals wakefulness to the rest of your body. The opposite occurs when your light exposure is lowered, which prompts your brain to signal relaxation and drowsiness. It makes sense why using our phones at night then sends the opposite message to your body which can hinder the quality of sleep we receive.
Additionally, light prevents the release of melatonin, and darkness promotes it. That’s why it’s more difficult to fall asleep after you’ve been looking at a screen because your body hasn’t had the opportunity to release melatonin which causes drowsiness. Plus, if you push it too long, adrenaline will then kick in (your body starts to think, oh we’re not resting? Let me help by giving you a boost.) This makes sleep even more difficult!
Tip 2: Develop a personal relaxation plan for your bedtime routine.
Can’t sleep when you want to? When our sleep schedules are irregular, this can interfere with our body’s ability to relax when we want to sleep. Having a relaxation plan and habits to encourage physical and mental calmness before actually going to sleep can help. The National Sleep Foundation recommends activities such as mediation, quietly reading or stretching, and listening to soothing music before sleeping that can help to trigger signals for relaxation. I personally like to incorporate a 5-10 minute stretch session and going through my skincare routine right before I hop into bed every night.
Tip 3: Limit alcohol and caffeine.
One of the reasons why I was originally interested in fixing my sleep schedule is because coffee simply does not help me to feel more awake. If anything, I tend to experience headaches and the sugar crashes after consuming Starbucks. Being sleep deprived without a means to prevent drowsiness during class was a poor combination that only led to the vicious cycle that eventually forced me to change my sleep schedule.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, both alcohol and caffeine negatively influence your sleep cycle. In the case of alcohol, although it can cause sleepiness but because it affects sleep cycles, it can make you “prone to awakenings and lower-quality sleep as the night goes on” (5). In comparison, caffeine can produce tendencies to stay alert longer and hinder your attempt to sleep during bedtime. Reducing consumption of alcohol and caffeine, particularly later on the day can be beneficial for improving sleep hygiene.
Tip 4: Don’t pull an all-nighter.
Many people believe that an all-nighter can force them back into a better sleep schedule, but this extreme lack of sleep will only result in worse outcomes. Your sleep stages can be altered from typical sleep cycles after an all-nighter because of a “REM sleep rebound, which means you spend an abnormal amount of time in the rapid eye movement stage” (5). Gradually adjusting the time you go to sleep and wake up over the course of multiple days may be more effective.
Tip 5: Commit to physical activity.
As students, we spend a lot of time sitting down at our desks. From attending class to studying at the library, our lifestyles may result in sedentary activity levels. Incorporating some form of physical exercise can both improve cardiovascular health and sleep quality. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, moderate aerobic exercise can increase the amount of slow wave sleep, or deep sleep, you get throughout the night (6). I personally enjoy Pilates and following dance workouts on YouTube, but generally, any form of body movement that gets your blood pumping and heartbeat up is helpful.
Maintaining a healthy sleep schedule that works for you is not an easy task and it’s totally fine to stay up late or snooze a few extra times here and there. In the event that the stress is piling up to the point where it seems unfeasible, below is a list of other helpful resources besides a good night’s worth of sleep. You can also access more information about these offices at this link.
And for those who are interested in learning more about managing academic stress, here’s a helpful article from a researcher at the University of Rochester.