There are so many health-related changes that can make a BIG difference in your health and well-being. But probably the most powerful is the change of getting more sleep.
Make a change in this area, and it seems to trickle down to all the other areas. When you’re rested, you have better time management, the energy to be physically active and to plan meals. When you’re sleep-deprived…well…you’ve got nothing.
This week’s blog and IG posts will focus on delving into the specifics of why good sleep is essential for our success as college students (and human beings!). Be on the lookout for next week’s which will provide five practical and powerful strategies on how to directly improve your sleep.
Sleep is inextricably linked to another s-word that is also often a source of struggle and frustration for college students. You probably guessed it – STRESS! Stress often interferes with our efforts to get our desired quantity and quality of sleep and in turn, a lack of sleep can intensify the stress levels we feel throughout the day, creating a vicious cycle.
What makes it so difficult to fall asleep when we’re stressed? When we experience stress, our fight-or-flight response is activated, keeping our bodies and minds suspended in a state of arousal. This means that although we may be lying in bed and trying our best to fall asleep, the stress response is sending our body systems warning signals about potential threats and creating a sense of hyper vigilance that keeps us alert and aroused.1
More often than not, these are not immediate threats in our external environment (like a hungry lion lurking around the corner), which is what the fight or flight system originally evolved to protect us against. Rather, they arise from our mental activity – worrisome thoughts about the future, ruminations about all the problems we experienced during the day…you get the idea.
Often, our perception of the impact and magnitude of these “threats” is blown out of proportion by our imagination.
Can anyone else relate?
Our anxiety or fear may not actually have any rational basis. Nevertheless, our bodies interpret our stressful thoughts as real and imminent threats, and seek to prepare us to combat them by keeping us awake and alert.
As a result, we may experience one or many of the common symptoms associated with sleep problems, such as difficulty falling asleep, waking up frequently during the night, waking up too early and not being able to return to sleep, waking up feeling tired and unrested, or even breathing difficulties and unpleasant bodily sensations1. The list goes on and on. In contrast, a good night’s sleep occurs when we fall asleep just a few minutes after our head hits the pillow, are able to sleep soundly and deeply throughout the night, and wake up the next morning feeling refreshed and recharged.
Sounds amazing, right?
If this sounds like a foreign experience to you (or the stuff of fairytales), you’re not alone! According to a 2020 poll by the National Sleep Foundation2, the majority of Americans report feeling sleepy at least three days a week, and recognize that this impacts their mood, productivity, mental acuity, and daily activities in a negative way.
The frequency of irritability, headaches, and feeling physically unwell was much higher among those with insufficient sleep, compared to those who slept enough. Sleep deficient individuals also noticed that they were less able to focus their thoughts, work productively, complete their daily activities, exercise, and effectively socialize. In this way, lack of sleep can have a domino effect on all the areas of life that we value, from our academic performance to our relationships.
Rather than addressing the root of the problem, many people deal with the adverse effects of sleep deprivation by just “shaking it off” (ignoring it) or often consuming caffeine and sugary snacks for an immediate – but short-lived – burst of energy.
In fact, there is a clear scientific link between sleep and nutrition that is worth noting3. Insufficient sleep can promote overeating and the consumption of processed foods, since sleep deprivation affects appetite and nutritional choices. There’s a complex hormonal piece that explains this link but I won’t bore you with the science-y details. This hormonal response is compounded by the fact that when we’re tired, we don’t feel like grocery shopping, meal planning, or cooking.
Conversely, getting sufficient, quality sleep can significantly boost our efforts to implement healthy changes in all areas of our life. It equips us with the energy we need to be the best versions of ourselves and to live the full, rich life we crave.
Pause for a moment and take some time to recall a period of time or specific instance in your life where you were getting enough sleep and felt sufficiently rested throughout the day. How was your experience of life and yourself different from the days where you feel sleep deprived and tired? Think about your energy levels, mood, productivity, and physical state. Now imagine that you could feel just as you felt on that well-rested day for most days (or even every day!) of your life.
Of course, life would still involve ups and downs and present its inevitable challenges, but chances are, sufficient sleep will equip you with the physical energy and mental clarity you need to successfully navigate and overcome those challenges.
In order to successfully commit to changes in your sleep patterns, first identify how and why sleep is worth prioritizing for you specifically. If you’re feeling extra determined and inspired right now (I know I am!), it may even be worth compiling a list of the ways in which sufficient sleep will benefit different areas of your life. You can return to this every time you feel tempted to stay up for those few extra hours.
Take this week to clarify all the ways in which you know you benefit from sleep, and check back in next week for some tips on how directly experience the magic of good sleep by improving your sleep habit.