Lately, we haven’t been sleeping too well. We know many of you probably haven’t either, since the midterm season brings more than just exam stress. It brings an entire mid-semester slump! (Maybe it’s partly due to some bad sleeping habits?)
Here’s a few tips to getting better sleep, tailored to a sleep-deprived student body:
1. Organize your thoughts in a new, systematic way.
We’ve found that writing down a “to improve” list can be helpful. Why? In general, students deal with a large number of smaller stresses — exams, disagreements with roommates, buying textbooks — versus something larger. It can often feel overwhelming to try to constantly sort priorities, compartmentalize and keep focused with so many things to remember. As a result, we feel overwhelmed and plagued by worry! Keeping your priorities accessible and clear can eliminate an urge to mentally “search” and therefore lead to less struggle in falling asleep. (Read more about sleep and organization here.)
2. Take a closer look at what you’re eating, especially if you use a meal plan.
The dining halls and restaurants on and around campus offer a wide variety of meal choices, but take it from us meal plan veterans — not every menu choice is one-size-fits-all.
We’ve all heard that it’s a mistake to eat right before sleeping or in the evening — it’s said to do everything from cause excess weight gain, bloating in the ankles, disturb sleep… However, we’ve noticed that eating before bed is often different for everyone. Many will find temptations like Late Night at Crossroads to be agony in disguise, where a tower of buffalo wings at 11 p.m. seems like a reward at the end of a long day of work, but at 3 a.m. becomes a literal nightmare. Others find that eating before bed helps – carbohydrates are especially lauded as having positive effects on our balance of the neurotransmitter serotonin, or the “happy” chemical, which can help us relax into a deeper sleep.
Additionally, many freshman in particular find they switch eating habits drastically upon starting a meal plan for the first time, which can affect sleep for a few key reasons. Often, a change in diet can throw the body’s natural balance off. Or, new foods themselves may be to blame. Some of us can get over-excited at the prospect of unsupervised buffet access, but studies show that consuming high-fat foods, or protein-rich foods can actually disrupt sleep cycles in some people, because they are harder to digest. (Read more about eating habits and sleep here.)
3. Rediscover your RSF membership.
There are a lot of ways to squeeze in an hour of cardio. Yoga to the People offers donation-based classes, there are lots of hiking trails near Berkeley and a RSF membership is only $10 a semester, among others. It may seem stressful in itself to add another activity to your schedule, but the benefits of some hard cardio are worth it. Regular exercise helps to regulate body rhythm, meaning better sleep and better moods, with thanks to the endorphins and excess anxiety exercise releases. Many people who report better sleep after a bout of insomnia find that it’s the exercise that really did the trick. After several years of college, we’ve discovered there can be a big difference between mental and physical fatigue — so when it seems like you’ve studied yourself into exhaustion but still can’t sleep, it might be your body that’s keeping you awake at night! (Read more about exercise and sleep here.)
4. Banish “blue light.”
You may not know this, but “blue light” from electronic screens like monitors and televisions can actually interfere with our ability to sleep. This is because it has been shown be interpreted by our brains as natural daylight, which can suppress the “sleep hormone” known as melatonin, a naturally-produced chemical responsible for sleep cycle regulation. Since virtually all students use laptops or home computers for at least several hours a day, we’re more at risk for sleep disorders and bad sleep hygiene.
To cap your blue light exposure, you can try several things. Try switching to paper notebooks to take your notes if you feel attached to your laptop, or if you feel particularly ambitious, invest in a pair of special glasses, or a screen filter to block the waves from reaching your eyes. Or, just turn down your brightness at night, or try a browser app that will alter the color settings on your monitor. Chrome has some great free apps available on the Chrome Web Store that allow users to customize site colors and styles, with many designed with low-light or night browsing in mind. (Read more about blue light here.)
5. Watch out for “the blues,” depression, anxiety, and any other mental bothers
— sometimes they show up as physical symptoms, not emotional! Depression can cause lots of sleep bugs, whether it’s sleeplessness, oversleeping, early morning waking, disturbing dreams… and many of us will never know we have it when we do. That’s because depression can manifest in physical symptoms (including fatigue, anxiety, lowered immune response…) instead of the mental symptoms we characterize more as classically “depressive” (including sadness or apathy). Most people experience at least one depressive episode at least once in their lives, and almost all of us experience a low period once in a while — for many, this is quite often! The best thing to do is to be mindful of your mental health, whether by yourself or with the help of a counselor.
6. Learn how to “cocoon” yourself if you live in a dorm or noisy apartment.
Living in the dorms in particular can mean hell if you’re not a heavy sleeper. You may need to discover the art of walling yourself off from noise and light; even when we’re finally asleep, sounds can still disturb us and prevent us from full rest. (We often just don’t realize we’re being woken up, since we don’t remember it the next morning!) If this description sounds like life with your housemates, there’s a few simple things you can do. For one, invest in good earplugs — just remember to switch your alarm to vibrate, and keep it on your person. Also, learn to use the “airplane” mode or “sleep” mode on your phone. If incoming data or messages could wake you at the wrong time, especially if you still need use of your phone for the alarm feature, you could be sleepless because of your devices.
7. Wind down your weekend wars and all-nighters.
Alcohol is for many people a method of getting to sleep rather than interfering with it, but you might be surprised to learn that partying can interfere with sleep in a few key ways. Because partying, studying late, or pulling an “all-nighter” postpones our regular bedtime until very late (or very early), and encourages sleeping in, our regular cycles can be thrown off by hours. Most of us are at least somewhat sensitive to erratic sleep schedules, since our brains become confused about when to “wind down” or “gear up.” As a result, we can feel sleepy or alert at inappropriate times.
The above tips are just a few methods we’ve discovered to help us through a rough relationship between sleep and school. If you’ve checked off other possible contributors to bad sleep, be sure to give these more college-relevant tips a try. Good luck, and sweet dreams!
Image source: Joanne Wan under Creative Commons.
Tags:blue light, Depression, dorm life, health, insomnia, melatonin, Mental Health, mental illness, sleep, sleeping, stress
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