By Ramona Neferu, PLA
Have you ever written a test where you read a question and you instantly knew the exact page number, exact chapter, or exact section that the answer would be found in your textbook, only to realize that you don’t know the actual answer? This is one of the many effects of sleep deprivation on humans, where we remember little unimportant details but forget the big picture. Sleep deprivation is so common among students, and seems like it is unavoidable. However, with some discipline, planning, and self-knowledge, sleep can be part of our life once again.
My personal experience with sleep deprivation escalated in week 5 of this semester, when I had been battling a cold for about a week, while at the same time trying to stay on top of the huge amount of material covered in all of my classes. I was averaging 5 hours of sleep per night for about two weeks and constantly felt exhausted.
My stress levels were through the roof. Every time the professor would go through an example that I didn’t understand, I wanted to cry due to stress build-up. Every little comment that was meant to be constructive criticism felt like the biggest insult. Sleep deprivation had turned me into an irritable, depressed person, for whom every extra little task felt like a mountain of work, when in reality, it was indeed difficult, but manageable.
Simply put, the brain needs rest. When we are sleeping, we’re consolidating neural networks and creating new linkages between our thoughts. Sleep is also when the brain holds on to the useful and important information, and forgets the unimportant facts, such as the exact page number that the answer to a certain question is on. If deprived of sleep, the brain does not have time to select the important bits and tries to hold on to everything it is presented with. This overloads the brain and in turn, memory and cognitive skills are greatly impaired.
Not only is cognitive function impaired when we are sleep deprived, but more stress hormones start to be produced. This can lead to many adverse physical and emotional health effects that would further impair a student’s ability in achieving their greatest potential in school.
Let’s face it. Everyone has their own sleep rhythm or cycle. For some of us – the night owls – 8:30 AM lectures are just pure torture. For others – the early birds – night classes are painful to sit through. The truth of the matter is, as students, we must work with the educational system. We must also optimize and prioritize our amount of sleep with our tasks and responsibilities daily. One of the previous blog posts dealt with re-wiring a sleep-deprived brain after cramming for a test. It dealt with the fact that most students become nocturnal during exam season and their sleeping cycle is drastically altered. It also presented very useful tips on how to fall asleep and how to keep the same sleep schedule every day, such as having a bedtime routine, taking power naps, etc.
Those same tips can also be applied to chronic sleep deprivation, not just recovering from a few nights of cramming. Waking up and going to bed at the same time every day, even on weekends, lets our body adjust to a sleeping cycle, and ensures enough hours of sleep every night. Power naps lasting up to 30 minutes are also helpful for some people, but not all. For example, some people feel revitalized after a 30 minute nap, while others feel groggy for up to an hour after the nap. Then there are some people who take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, so naps aren’t an efficient use of their time.
So how have I changed my habits in order to maximize my amount of sleep? I took one step at a time. On the first day that I realized I should take control of my sleeping habits, I made a huge list of all the tasks I needed to accomplish in the next few days, and also during the week. I then prioritized each task based on level of importance, difficulty, and urgency. Then I promised myself that I would go to bed early that day no matter what, but I also made sure I accomplished the few tasks that were absolutely necessary to complete that day, with minimal level of difficulty for my sleep-deprived brain to endure. Making a list and prioritizing tasks helps raise our motivation levels and shows us that we can accomplish our pile of work one step at a time.
The next day, I felt unbelievably better (who knew sleep could do such wonders?). I again looked at the task list, chose only a few tasks to complete (this time, more difficult tasks for my slightly more rested brain), and again went to bed at a decent hour, no matter what. Since I am a night owl, I find it difficult to associate anything before 1:00 AM as bedtime. I found that a good way to trick myself into an earlier bedtime is to study until Douglas Library closes, no matter where you’re studying. Douglas Library closes at 11:00 PM, and I trick myself into reasoning that if a library on campus closes at 11:00 PM, it is indeed time to go home. I even tell myself that it is a sign that I should go home. Even if I am studying in Stauffer Library or anywhere else, I pretend that I am being kicked out at 10:50 PM and I head home to a cozy inviting bed. As with all things, when something becomes important to us, when we “didn’t have time” to do it before, we start to make time for it once we commit to it.
I have found that getting more sleep has resulted in paying more attention in class and remembering more lecture material. What I was most worried about when I decided to start getting more sleep was that I wouldn’t have time to do all my schoolwork if I was spending my time sleeping. Not so. I found that I did not need as much time to do the same tasks as before because my concentration levels were increased. I also kept making lists and prioritizing tasks so that I wasn’t overwhelmed and tempted to do everything in one night. I have also found that my mood elevated and each additional task thrown at me did not feel like the end of the world. I started with small steps (completing one task at a time, starting with low difficulty, and then increasing the level of difficulty) and making sure I was in bed before midnight. Decreasing (or completely cutting out) caffeine is also a good idea for maximum amount and quality of sleep because caffeine tricks our bodies into thinking that we have more energy than we actually do.
The key is also to find out how many hours of sleep YOU need in order to feel refreshed. The guideline for the average adult is 8 hours of sleep per night, but this is only a guideline. For example, I have found that I usually need 9 full hours of sleep to feel refreshed and ready to face my days. Every person is different and should find what works best for them.
Life will only increase its demands on us, whether it is our courses, added responsibilities, etc. If we do not realize what our limits are and take control of our life in order to achieve balance, more tasks will be thrown at us and sleep deprivation will ensue, ultimately resulting in a downward spiral of uncompleted tasks, shorter attention span, and silly mistakes on tests. Good time management and remaining calm and focused on only one task at a time helps tremendously not only with sleep, but with other day-to-day life challenges.
So take a breather, start with small, accomplishable tasks, and get the sweet shut-eye that you deserve. Sweet dreams and all the best!