Sleep Better, Feel Better: Preventing Sleep Deprivation in College Students

SBM: sleep-better-feel-better-preventing-sleep-deprivation-in-college-students

Benjamin T. Ladd, BA, The Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center, The Miriam Hospital; and Carly M. Goldstein, PhD FAACVPR, The Warren Alpert Medical School, Brown University

Though many people struggle to fall or stay asleep, college students are particularly vulnerable to environment-driven sleep deprivation. As many as 60% of undergraduates have poor sleep quality and 25% experience insomnia symptoms.

Decreased sleep increases vulnerability to problematic health behaviors including decreased exercise, poor eating habits, and smoking. Fortunately, you can improve your sleep quality with a few proven strategies.

Preventing Sleep Deprivation as a College Student

Manage nighttime noise.

College students living in communal living spaces face challenges like noisy neighbors. Assertively communicate with others in your space about limiting noise around bedtime. Earplugs, noise-cancelling headphones, a loud fan, or a white noise machine can block out disruptive nighttime sounds. As a last resort, try reaching out to the residential life office at your school.

Keep your surroundings cool and dark. 

The optimal sleep temperature is between 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit. Turn down your thermostat before bed or open a window. You can also try cooling pillows and bedding. Minimize ambient light in your sleep space by using blackout curtains or a sleep mask.  

Try to address anxiety during the daytime. 

Anxious people sleep less and spend less time in REM sleep, leading to difficulties concentrating, daytime sleepiness, and poor memory. Schedule and plan your many commitments. Engage in meaningful activities that you enjoy, especially ones that are just for fun.

When we are stressed and anxious, we tend to cut out the fun activities first. Fun and joyful activities are central to maintaining your mental health. Similarly, continue to invest in your relationships with family and friends. A strong support network can help you tackle stressful events and get through difficult periods of your life. Remember that the people in your life care about you and want to help.

Try to incorporate exercise into your week and consider therapy. Your university may have resources available for no- or low-cost support. 

Finally, when anxious thoughts run through your head in bed, try writing them down and quickly laying back down to sleep. Get in the habit of telling yourself that you will deal with those issues tomorrow. This can be difficult at first but can be learned with practice. 

Meditate before bedtime.

You can do this on your own or through an app. Individuals who engage in nighttime mindfulness have fewer insomnia symptoms and less anxiety, stress, depression, and daytime fatigue interference and severity. These improvements exceed those when practicing sleep hygiene alone. Consider joining a meditation club at your college to build and support the habit.

Maintain a regular nighttime sleep schedule. 

Try to be in bed at the same time each night and set your alarm for the same time each morning; fight the urge to sleep in! Waking at the same time every morning, even on weekends, establishes a regular sleep rhythm.

Your schedule may vary significantly, posing a challenge for maintaining a consistent sleep schedule. For sleep purposes, it may  hurt your sleep to wake up for class at 7 am one day each week and wake up much later every other day. In this case, try to wake up early every day. Use that morning time to exercise, meditate, do homework, or engage in a meaningful hobby.

Avoid doing homework directly before bedtime. Instead, develop a consistent and short routine before bed that helps you wind down, like reading a book, meditating, or listening to relaxing music. Avoid screens because the blue light waves from the screen may inhibit production of melatonin, the hormone that induces sleep.

Moderate or reduce alcohol, nicotine, and marijuana, especially around bedtime.  

Alcohol can reduce sleep duration, time spent in REM sleep, and sleep schedule variability. Many college students use marijuana to fall asleep. This often results in reduced time spent in REM sleep causing worse sleep efficiency, daytime sleepiness and dysfunction, and negatively affects academic performance.  

If you use nicotine, avoid nicotine-based substances 4 hours before bedtime. Nicotine has stimulant properties that are associated with sleep disruptions and disorders.

Reduce and be strategic about naps. 

If you nap, aim for 20-30 minutes before 2pm. To fall asleep, your body uses a circadian rhythm (knowing day versus night) and sleep pressure, which builds throughout the day. Napping midday reduces sleep pressure, so nap early enough that your body has time to build up your sleep pressure again before bedtime. Remember that there are alternatives to naps, such as exercise or resting in a quiet place. 

If nothing works after lying in bed for 20 minutes, don’t force the issue. Get out of bed and do a quiet, relaxing screen-free activity, and only return to bed when you can’t resist falling asleep.  

If these strategies don’t work for you, seek out a behavioral sleep medicine specialist (a psychologist who specializes in sleep), a health psychologist, a board-certified sleep medicine doctor, or your primary care provider for more guidance or targeted interventions. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) is an evidence-based technique used to effectively address sleep-related issues. Evidence-based workbooks are also a great option that can work well such as this option or this one

Before that, try 1 or 2 of the above tips and see how it affects your sleep. While some of these habits can be difficult to start, they’re a great way to take charge of your sleep and improve your well-being.

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