Why Focus on Sleep?
College students today often see themselves as pushed “to the max.” Long days with too much to do and not enough time to do it is often the norm. College students can experience excessive stress, anxiety, and worry. These kinds of difficulties can interfere with normal sleep patterns.
If you are having sleep difficulties, you are not alone. Over 50% of adults report past or current sleep difficulties. Common problems include sleeping too much, trouble falling asleep, and waking up in the night.
However common, college students often underestimate the negative impact of sleep problems on their work, relationships and general well being. The #1 cause of human error in major industrial and automotive accidents is fatigue. Academic performance can also be sabotaged by poor sleep patterns. In a July 2002 article on sleep, Newsweek magazine reported that sleep deprivation for more than 24 hours “affects performance as much as a blood alcohol level above the legal limit.”
There’s also evidence that an inadequate amount of sleep can:
- Increase moodiness
- Decrease ability to concentrate
- Decrease retention of new information.
- Challenge your ability to manage stress
- Lessen your body’s ability to fight off illness
For these reasons, it may be costly to ignore sleep problems or bad sleep habits.
It will take time for sleep changes to happen, so be patient and don’t give up!
What is a Good Night’s Sleep?
Many of us think we’re getting adequate sleep, but really aren’t. The amount of sleep you need to be at your best is as individual as the amount of food you need. It isn’t simply how many hours of sleep time you’re logging in that matters, but how good you feel and how well you’re able to perform each day.
Individual sleep needs vary considerably from person-to-person and depend also on a number of external factors such as motivation and mood. Some people need 6 hours or less, but others require up to 9 hours to feel wide awake and to function at their peak level. However, quality of sleep — which includes keeping regular sleep schedules, proper exercise and nutrition — is as important as quantity.
How can sleep habits improve your sleep?
One of the best ways to improve your sleep is to replace a poor sleep routine with an environment and schedule that promotes sleep. Sleep expert Dr. Richard Bootzin developed a technique known as stimulus control to help people with insomnia which involves a number of sleep habit instructions.
The main goals of the stimulus control technique are to fall asleep quickly and to stay asleep.
These goals are achieved by:
- Strengthening your mind’s connection of the bed and the bedroom as a place for sleep
- Weakening the mind’s connection of the bed/ bedroom as a cue for stimulating activities that
might interfere with sleep (like studying, watching TV, eating, etc.).
- Developing a consistent sleep schedule.
Most research shows that when individuals are tired, they fall asleep within five minutes or less. Falling asleep is something you allow yourself to do, not make yourself do. Tell yourself that you are letting yourself fall asleep, and also remind yourself the time at which you wish to awake. Many individuals can learn to wake themselves up within minutes of the designated time, if they are getting regular sleep.
If you are experiencing problems with sleep, and you are committed to following these instructions, it is likely that you will experience some sleep improvement.
Additional Tips for Improving Sleep
- Wind down for the night at least 30 to 60 minutes before bed.
- Reduce caffeine and tobacco use late in the day.
- Limit or avoid alcohol before bedtime. While a glass of wine or a beer may be helpful for some individuals, excessive alcohol has a tendency to get you to sleep, but then interrupts sleep throughout the night.
- Exercise late in the afternoon or early evening can help, but do no major exercise (except for sexual activity) any less than 2 hours before going to bed.
- Relax before bed. Light stretching, a warm shower or bath, or any other activity that you find relaxing, may be helpful.
- Have a light carbohydrate or dairy snack before bedtime but avoid chocolate or sugar. In small quantities, sometimes eating something prior to bedtime can help. A bottle of milk puts a baby to sleep; the same principle can work for adults.
- Avoid drinking large amounts of fluid late in the day. A full bladder can interfere with sleep.
- Do not have a visible bedroom clock. “Clock watching” often intensifies insomnia. Turn the clock face away from you or put it in a drawer.
- Sunday through Thursday evenings, as often as possible, try to get to bed on the same day you got up. This means being in bed by midnight. Research indicates that if you sleep on a schedule that allows you to be awake by early morning, you will perform better.
- On Friday and Saturday nights, try to extend your wake hours by no more than a couple of hours. The more off cycle you get, the harder it is to get back on cycle and stay rested and alert
- If you experience a large number of distressing thoughts when you are trying to fall asleep, try setting up a thinking time during your daytime hours. Pick a 20 to 60 minute period when you can focus on the types of thoughts that come to you when you are trying to fall asleep. When these thoughts come to mind as you are trying to fall asleep, dismiss them and remind yourself that you will deal with them during “thinking time.” If this doesn’t work, keep a pad of paper by your bed so you can “download” your thoughts to reconsider the next day. After a good night’s rest, you will think and resolve those concerns better.
- If you are dealing with a severe crisis or you are under extreme pressures, there are some non-addicting sleep medications that can be provided for short periods of time by a university physician. Consider a consultation with a physician. Sleep difficulties can also be caused by other physical or mental health concerns such as depression. If you are having difficulty managing sleep patterns by yourself, you may want to consider discussing your concerns with a counselor. The Counseling Center provides individual, group and couple’s therapy.
NOTE: This document was published on the University of Texas-Austin Counseling and Mental Health Center’s website. It is published here with their permission.