Illustration by Sofia Reeves

Mental health of college students dependent upon proper sleep habits

It is well known that college students need seven to nine hours of sleep. But what is the big deal? What is so important about sleep?

Sleep is closely linked to the health of the human body, both mental and physical. According to the Mayo Clinic, sleep is tied to important processes such as the regulation of hunger hormones (which is why we feel hungrier when we are tired), regulating blood pressure and sorting through the events of the day — hence one’s mood and ability to focus. 

While sleeping, the brain processes memories of the day, which is vital for its ability to adapt to and learn from new information, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. This also means that sleep is important to be able to clearly remember what happened that day.

One important thing to understand about sleep is that it is not a uniform process. According to Johns Hopkins, there are five total stages of sleep: four that vary from light to deep, and REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. REM sleep, the stage where dreams occur, used to be considered the most important for cognitive tasks. Now some studies attribute non-REM sleep to helping with learning and memory.

Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell, professor of psychology at Lewis & Clark, studies how to promote positive behaviors through “message framing,” or manipulating the context and presentation of information, according to her profile on the LC website. Specifically, her research seeks to improve behaviors that benefit physical and mental well-being.

“One of the big challenges is, even if you want to sleep, how do you create good routines around that?” Detweiler-Bedell said. “All of us have the experience of a good night’s sleep and waking up refreshed — it totally transforms your day.”

The first thing she recommends is to create a routine to go to bed and wake up at similar times every day.

“That’s hard to do — I know a lot of college students recoup sleep on the weekends,” Detweiler-Bedell said. “I don’t necessarily advocate for sacrificing the time you have to sleep on the weekends. But during the school week, even if your classes start later on certain days of the week, why not set the alarm for the same or similar time?”

The second piece of advice is to pay close attention to one’s use of technology around bedtime. According to SCL Health, it is helpful to avoid looking at screens for about 30 minutes before bed, as the blue light can disrupt the production of melatonin.

During the day, Detweiler-Bedell also recommends avoiding work in bed. Doing so can cause the brain to create an association between one’s bed and the need to be alert and processing information.

“If you are thinking and working when you’re in bed, then when you get into that bed, you’re going to have less restful sleep, or a more difficult time falling and staying asleep,” Detweiler-Bedell said.

In order to start building good sleeping practices, Detweiler-Bedell suggests collecting some data about your own sleep habits, like when you go to bed and how much sleep you get each night.

“Just to get some initial information about your patterns can be really helpful in order to try to make changes,” Detweiler-Bedell said.

The key strategy she suggested was to switch away from punitive mindsets around habit building. Instead of focusing on what one wants to stop doing, she recommends focusing on a new routine that is relaxing or enjoyable.

“It’s a lot harder to motivate people if you’re focusing on the negative behavior you want to get rid of, unless you have something positive that you’re putting in its place,” Detweiler-Bedell said.

Detweiler-Bedell has a bevy of recommendations for such routines, which she calls “calming rituals.” She suggests breathing exercises, meditation, stretching, drinking herbal tea or listening to calming music. For her, reading a book before bed has been the solution.

“Typically it’s such a routine for me that I know I’m going to read for about 20 minutes and it helps me then to go off to sleep,” she said. “But I also look forward to that, so I’m like, ‘Ooh, I get to go to bed and read this thing that has nothing to do with my work.’”

A final strategy is to set realistic, incremental goals.

“People often set really extreme goals for themselves, and also all-or-nothing goals, like, ‘Either I’m gonna get in bed at 10 o’clock, or the night is shot, and I might as well study ‘til two,’” Detweiler-Bedell said.

Instead, it is better to try and get to bed a little earlier — 30 minutes or so — each night until you feel like you are getting enough sleep.

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