Mind Your Mind: Sleep matters more than you think

A professional once told me that getting good sleep is the equivalent of eating nutritious food. He also told me that most college students are sleep-deprived. I especially believe that in recent years, sleep deprivation has become so common that it’s considered part of our university culture.

One thing to note is that sleep deprivation is not the same as insomnia. Insomnia is characterized as an inability to fall asleep, stay asleep and get restful sleep, while being sleep-deprived means an individual is not getting an adequate amount of sleep, for any number of reasons.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, about one in five adults fail to get adequate sleep. The causes vary. People fail to get adequate sleep because of their work hours, emergency situations and unexpected circumstances, personal obligations or medical problems. Sleep deprivation can be voluntary or involuntary. Staying up late to study, for example, is a choice that some individuals make. Staying up late to take care of a loved one who is sick, on the other hand, can be necessary.

Getting a good night’s sleep is due to a variety of factors, and often times, we don’t get to choose whether we wake up rested in the morning — if we did, we’d feel refreshed every morning! However, I do believe that we need to hold ourselves accountable. If staying up late is a choice we get to make, then it is also our job to deal with the consequences.

Needless to stay, being sleep-deprived affects individuals’ academic performances. Sleep plays an important role when it comes to consolidating memories and retaining information. For instance, if students are sleep-deprived, they will most likely suffer from day time sleepiness, which could then affect their ability to pay attention. Mood swings, irritability, anxiety, fatigue and increased risks of medical conditions are also negative consequences of lacking sleep.

In order to lessen the effects of sleep deprivation, there are a few strategies that can help.

The first one is obvious and there’s no way around it — increase your nightly sleep time. In order to make up for insufficient sleep, you need to take the time to sleep. So in order to make up for your “sleep debt,” the difference between the amount of sleep you should be getting versus what you are getting now, you can add one or two hours of sleep each night, for a short period of time, until you’re back on track.

Not everyone can do that though, so there are other strategies that people can use as short-term solutions. Although caffeine has a bad reputation, even the American Academy of Sleep Medicine admits that caffeine can help you stay alert, especially after acute sleep restriction. Brief naps are also acceptable, but should only last 30 minutes or less, because longer naps can lead to grogginess and drowsiness.

It’s important to stress the fact that in terms of long-term solutions, establishing a sleep routine and practicing sleep hygiene will always be a more ideal solution, with long-lasting consequences. It can be really hard to establish a daily sleep routine, especially if you’re used to a hectic sleep schedule.

In my opinion, the first step is acknowledging the issue and making a commitment to addressing it. The second step involves getting to know your own sleep patterns, because everyone is different, and solutions can vary. The third step, and arguably the most difficult one, consists of brainstorming solutions, both short-term and long-term.

It is about making one small change at a time. For me, the first step was making changes to my studying schedule so I could maximize the amount of sleep I was getting. Then I tried to go to sleep half an hour before my usual bed time. Although I’m far from getting “perfect” sleep, I’ve been noticing a slight difference. After all, it’s a work in progress, and I have to be ready to make changes depending on my present circumstances and listening to my body’s signals.

The authors of this column are not mental health professionals. If you need additional support, please contact Student Health Services, Sexual Assault Support Centre and/or the Wellness Centre. In case of an emergency, call 911.