One of the main reasons students refer themselves to the University of Cumbria’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Team, is because they are struggling with sleep. It might be because they struggle to get to sleep, or they sleep too much, or they have disturbed sleep. Sustained sleep deprivation has a detrimental impact on your mental and physical health. But even short periods of poor sleep can have a negative impact on your mood, and your academic performance.
In their paper, Steven P. Gilbert & Cameron C. Weaver ((2010) Sleep Quality and Academic Performance in University Students: A Wake-Up Call for College Psychologists, Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, 24:4, 295-306, DOI: 10.1080/87568225.2010.509245), discuss some of the issues that students in particular face, when it comes to poor sleep. They note that one of the first daily routines to change when students first arrive on campus is their sleep. Sleep-cycle (going to bed at the same time, and waking up at the same time each day) is usually the first thing that changes. If the change becomes permanent, then problems can start to arise. Missing the occasional night (e.g. going to a party or a club night), can make us a little tired the next day, but chronic sleep problems have a significant impact.
Top tips for better sleep
Having a bedtime routine can really help. One of the best ways to train your body to sleep well is to go to bed, and wake up, more or less the same time every night, even on weekends and days off. It can be a challenge if you are a student on placement, or working shifts, but where possible, sleep the same amount of hours each night. If possible, aim to start your bedtime routine at least 30 minutes before getting into bed. Have a warm bath and relax (baths are not just for cleaning your body, but can be a way to relax). Some people find 15 minutes relaxation techniques useful, such as mindfulness, breathing exercises or a few relaxing stretches that can aid the process of falling asleep. You need to help your brain to switch off. You can’t expect your brain to go from being stimulated by computer games, films, revision, checking social media, etc. one minute, to being totally switched off the next minute.
Try to avoid consumption of food and drink too close to bedtime, but particularly avoid consuming caffeine, (such as coffee, tea, cola, chocolate, “energy drinks”), nicotine, (cigarettes or vaping) at least 4 hours before bed. These substances act as stimulants and interfere with the ability to fall asleep. Falling asleep on an empty stomach can be distracting, so make sure you have had a light snack close to bedtime, but don’t eat your full evening meal too late, as digesting lots of food, can also negatively impact your sleep. It is best to avoid taking naps during the day, to make sure that you are tired at bedtime. If you can’t make it through the day without a nap, make sure it is for less than an hour and before late afternoon.
Regular exercise also helps; burning up surplus energy, will help you feel tired (as well as all the physical and emotional benefits associated with exercise). It doesn’t have to be excessive or strenuous, but don’t do it immediately before bed, a few hours before is ideal. If you don’t consider yourself sporty, think about alternative exercises, such as a walk in the park, some yoga, etc.
It may seem obvious, but only go to bed when you feel sleepy, rather than spending too much time laying in bed staring at your eyelids! Whatever you do, don’t decide to prop yourself up and watch TV, or start using other electronic devices such as a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. That will only stimulate your mind, and the bright light will trick your mind into thinking it is daytime. It will also teach your mind that your bed is used for activities other than sleep. If you use your smartphone as an alarm clock, turn on the nighttime settings that most smartphones come with, that way you won’t be disturbed by a text message coming through, or a social media notification. The bed should only be used for sleep, or if you are recovering from illness, or for a little romance!!!! Let your body and brain develop this association. If you do climb into bed and get an idea for an assignment that you are working on, quickly jump out of bed, and make a note for the morning, before getting back into bed. That all said, there are some useful apps for helping and aiding with sleep; these include sleep trackers (but these tend to work better when you have a smartwatch), or meditation/mindfulness apps.
If you do find yourself struggling, even when you have put all the above tips into practice, then do try and avoid clock watching. Frequently checking the clock during the night can wake you up (especially if you turn on the light to read the time) and reinforces negative thoughts such as “Oh no, look how late it is, I’ll never get to sleep” or “I’ve only slept for 5 hours.” If you haven’t been able to get to sleep after about 20 minutes or more, get up and do something calming or boring until you feel sleepy, then return to bed and try again. Sit quietly on the couch with the lights off (bright light will tell your brain that it is time to wake up), or read something really boring. Avoid doing anything that is too stimulating or interesting, as this will wake you up even more.