Students, stress & sleep: A few tips

I remember the days of my undergrad when staying up late working on essays, pulling all-nighters in the library, and showing up to class frazzled and fatigued seemed to be the mark of the praised, overachieving student.

For my peers and myself, exhaustion was our normal. And while we excelled in school and work, our bodies and emotional/mental health suffered greatly.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs tells us that physiological needs are the basis to human flourishing. Before we can fully achieve healthy self-esteem, a sense of belonging, and self-actualization, one must have rest. Without feeling well-rested and alert, there is only so much emotional and mental work that we can do. 

Sleep is vital for many reasons. It provides us with energy, strengthens our immune systems, and it also affects our moods, emotions, memory, alertness, and motor skills.

Additionally, research has shown that sleep impacts a person’s responses to emotional stimuli, which means that healthy sleep hygiene may in fact increase social and emotional intelligence. This makes sense: the more rested we are, the likely the more alert we are, the likely the more observant, present, and attentive we are to others. And yet, with all the benefits considered, good sleep hygiene is often neglected in the culture we live in.

The CDC recommends seven to nine hours of sleep for most young adults, but according to a 2012 National Health Study, almost one-third of adults in the United States regularly get less than six hours of sleep per night. In a culture that leans toward highly valuing productivity, hard work, independence, and even sometimes glorifies exhaustion, the importance of sleep can go undervalued. 

For college students, the lack of sleep may be exemplified as young adults attempt to juggle class, study, work, making friends, finding community, and play. In addition, many students are entering a new stage of development in which they are learning to be more independent, live away from their family of origin, and develop support systems in their new environments.

Balancing these activities and pressures often means having an inconsistent schedule. When students feel the pressure of not being able to get all of their needs met, prioritizing healthy sleep patterns is often the first to go. But this doesn’t have to be the case. What if, rather than overvaluing 24/7 productivity (I promise you this isn’t sustainable, anyway), we embrace our humanity and our need for rest? Perhaps we could end each day saying, “What’s done is done. Tomorrow is a new day. Right now, I choose to be still.”

Embracing deliberate rest can start with better managing our sleep. While this sounds good in theory, I know how difficult it can be in practice. 

Here are tips as you begin to cultivate healthy sleeping habits:

g Avoid alcohol/caffeine before bed. Ah yes, I know my fellow students hate hearing this advice but it’s important. Not only does drinking before bed affect our ability to fall asleep but it can also impact our ability to stay asleep soundly. Consider ditching the nightly wine and opt for some bedtime tea instead! 

g Go device-free. Implement a no-phone policy before bed. For me, this means charging my phone in a separate room and using a good old-fashioned alarm clock instead. This leaves time in the evening for non-electronic activities like reading, chatting with a roommate, journaling, or whatever your heart desires. It also reduces the amount of blue light exposure, which can convince your body that it’s daytime, making it difficult to fall asleep.  

g Choose specific sleeping hours. This may look different for everyone but having a consistent bedtime and wake-up time can be a helpful routine. It’s likely that your body will start to naturally grow tired and wake up around these hours once you get into the practice of it. Whatever hours work best for you, aim for a good 7-9 hour window.  

g Create a restful bedroom environment. Temperature, noise, and clutter can all be distracting when trying to fall asleep. Creating a space that feels calming and relaxing may help you to unwind before falling asleep. 

Insomnia or other sleep problems can be linked to psychological conditions. Research has shown that 80-90 percent of those diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are affected by sleep deprivation.

The good news is that getting better sleep can be an important part of a treatment plan when working with a professional. If you suspect that you are experiencing sleep deprivation as a symptom of a mental health condition, talk to your doctor and a mental health professional.

Addressing sleep is so important to our mental and emotional health and well-being. Making lifestyle changes and seeking help can both be brave steps toward a healthier you. 

Sierra Pedro is a counseling intern at Center for Community Counseling and a grad student at Western Seminary. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism and communications from the University of Oregon. 



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