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The experts always say to get enough sleep, but what does that actually mean? And what does it mean to get restorative, quality sleep? To start, let’s talk about why we need quality sleep, especially as college students. Sleep plays a crucial role in the mental health and academic performance of college students. And yet, a TimelyCare survey of 1,200 students found more than half reported getting less than six hours of sleep per night, falling short of the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended 7 to 9 hours. Given “fifty percent of all adults who sleep less than that recommendation experience greater levels of depressive symptoms,” how can colleges and universities support students’ sleep to promote their mental health and academic success?
The sleep deprivation epidemic
Sleep deprivation has reached epidemic levels among college students, casting a shadow over their mental health and academic performance. A study by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) found a staggering six out of ten college students experience poor sleep quality. College students are riddled with responsibilities from classes to sports, jobs, extracurricular activities, and oh yeah, sleep. Sleep often gets put on the backburner by students especially since they are used to “running on fumes” and functioning on what is deemed to be just enough sleep. Poor sleep quality, especially over time, has direct consequences, including increased tension, irritability, depression, confusion, reduced life satisfaction, and poor academic performance.
At first, sleeping 6 hours instead of 7 may not seem like a significant difference. Over time, the consequences start to appear in our day-to-day lives, and we can become accustomed to this low level of functioning. Think about the importance of a clear windshield when driving. If it’s dirty or foggy, the driving conditions are poor, visibility is less, and accidents can happen. Even without accidents, we aren’t running as efficiently as we could, yet we become comfortable with our “foggy windshield”, meaning our lack of sleep.
Sleep and mental health
Numerous studies highlight the strong association between sleep and mental health. Research published in the National Library of Medicine, for instance, shows people with insomnia are between 10 and 17 times more likely than those without insomnia to experience clinically significant levels of depression and anxiety. Additionally, poor sleep is linked to post-traumatic stress, eating disorders, and psychotic symptoms such as delusions and hallucinations. Symptoms of mental illness and sleep deprivation play into each other, which is to say, symptoms can mimic each other and build off of one another. For example, a symptom of anxiety can be difficulty concentrating and a student may find themselves reading the same sentence over and over again. Sleep loss can also lead to difficulty focusing so the concentration difficulties become even more widespread, and it becomes difficult to distinguish what is a symptom of anxiety and what comes from sleep deprivation. In this case, it’s both.
The Harvard Medical School emphasizes the importance of sleep in maintaining good mental health, asserting lack of sleep impairs cognitive functioning, emotional regulation, and overall well-being. Cognitive functioning involves processes like planning, organizing, memory, etc, all vital in order to thrive as a college student. Emotion regulation on the other hand is our ability to manage emotions, meaning how we recognize the emotions and release them in a healthy or, in clinical terms, in an adaptive way. When we don’t sleep, our ability to use our cognitive functions and regulate our emotions is significantly diminished. Chronic sleep deprivation contributes to increased stress levels, reduced ability to cope with challenges, and heightened emotional reactivity, which points to the importance of not just sleep quantity but also sleep quality over time.
As students grow older, poor sleep quality can manifest into more serious health complications such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and even a stroke. Because insomnia weakens mental functions in relation to academic performance, reduced sleep quality also leads to mental health concerns and vice versa.
Academic performance and sleep
The CDC asserts that there is abundant evidence of the positive correlation between poor sleep quality and academic failure, low-grade point average, and negative academic performance.
Research published in the National Library of Medicine demonstrates that college students who obtain less sleep are more likely to experience lower academic performance and struggle with concentration, memory, and decision-making. Inadequate sleep compromises our cognitive processes, attention, information processing, and the ability to retain and recall information.
The relationship between sleep and academic success is further supported by research conducted by Carnegie Mellon University. Their study concludes that consistent and sufficient sleep is crucial for student success, with improved problem-solving skills, creativity, and overall academic achievement observed in those who get enough sleep. Cramming for an exam might lead to 5 hours of sleep one night with the goal of studying and retaining more information yet not having slept impedes our ability to retain and recall that information. Essentially, if we want to exercise our skills and perform well, we need to be able to concentrate, make decisions, and use our memory, all of which are impeded if we don’t sleep enough. Students tend to forego sleep since it is something in their control, something they feel they can take away from their busy schedules.
Recognizing the critical role of sleep in student well-being, TimelyCare took steps to support students’ sleep habits. The recently introduced Self-Care for Sleep Journey provides students with a comprehensive resource guide to enhance the quality and quantity of their sleep. By focusing on restorative, restful sleep, this journey supports students to improve their mood, energy levels, and overall well-being.
TimelyCare strategies for better sleep
To promote healthy sleep habits, TimelyCare’s Self-Care for Sleep Journey offers evidence-based strategies that students can incorporate into their daily routines:
Consistant sleep schedule
Set a regular bedtime and wake time to regulate your body’s internal clock, promoting better sleep quality and a natural sleep-wake cycle.
Create a quiet, dark, and cool bedroom. Use earplugs or a white noise machine to minimize noise disturbances. Use blackout curtains or an eye mask to block out light. Maintain a slightly cooler room temperature for optimal sleep.
Practice deep breathing, meditation, or gentle stretching before bed to calm your mind and release tension. Utilize guided meditation apps or relaxation podcasts to wind down.
Limit screen time
Reduce exposure to electronic devices emitting blue light, such as smartphones and tablets, at least one hour before bed. Engage in relaxing activities like reading or taking a warm bath instead.
Establish a consistent pre-sleep routine that includes reading, listening to calming music, practicing gentle yoga, or journaling. A consistent routine signals to your body that it’s time to unwind and prepare for restful sleep.
6 out of 10 college students experience poor sleep quality
Prioritizing healthy sleep habits is essential for college students to excel academically and maintain good mental health. TimelyCare’s Self-Care for Sleep Journey provides valuable resources and strategies for restorative sleep. By recognizing the crucial link between sleep, mental health, and academic performance, students can proactively take steps to improve sleep quality and quantity, and ultimately improve their mental and academic well-being.
Learn more about TimelyCare’s Self-Care for Sleep Journey.