Having difficulty falling asleep? Here are some strategies from a psychology prof
You already know sleep is important. During exam season, you crave it like nothing else. Maybe you’re envious of the students curled around their backpacks, snoozing on the couches in pedways across City Centre Campus. Or maybe you’re one of those lucky sleepers.
Dr. Nancy Digdon, associate professor in psychology, says her biggest pet peeve is hearing people tell others to make sure they get their sleep. “For people who have trouble sleeping, it’s often not for lack of desire,” she says. “Simply telling them that makes them anxious and compounds the problem.”
Nancy and student researchers Nicholas Hemmings, Geoffrey Rachor and Jayme Stewart study student volunteers who have difficulty falling asleep because their minds are too active at bedtime. (They’re currently evaluating the effectiveness of self-help interventions the volunteers are trying at home, including a distraction technique using an app and allocating time to write down nagging worries.)
If you have difficulty sleeping during times of stress, here are a few strategies Nancy suggests for catching those precious zzzs.
Know your sleep rhythms
You may have heard somewhere that eight hours is the optimum amount of sleep you need to be a well-functioning adult. The truth is it’s different for everybody. Some people only require six hours while others won’t be fully rested unless they can get 10.
Likewise, you might be a rise-and-shiner, happy to sit in the front row of an 8 a.m. class, or perhaps you’re a night owl who gets your best work done in the middle of the night—or you’re somewhere in between. Although it’s much too late now to reconsider your class schedule for the term, you may want to keep in mind how you best function.
“If you’re doing really intense academic work, pick your prime time,” says Nancy.
Studying around the clock is not mandatory
MacEwan offers a 24-hour study space in the John L. Haar Library during final exams, but you’re not required to take advantage. While Nancy thinks night owls will likely benefit most from having all-night access to the library, even owls have to sleep sometime.
“For most students, it will not be good to study all night,” says Nancy. She cites research in which students stayed up all night versus sleeping as they normally would. The next day, the students wrote a test, and were asked to predict how well they did. “The ones that were up all night on average do worse, but the interesting thing is they’re not aware that they do worse. They’re quite overconfident. The amount of impairment they have and their awareness of that impairment are two separate things.”
Again, know yourself and your limits—especially if you plan to change up your sleep habits to study around the clock.
Exercise (as always) is your friend
Exercise is rarely a bad idea, and it may just help you get to sleep.
“Exercise is actually really good, especially in the late afternoon and early evening, because it can help keep your rhythms, like temperature, in sync with sleep,” explains Nancy.
She says that it’s easier to fall asleep when your body temperature is falling than when it’s rising. Working out 20 minutes before bedtime is going to make you too warm for comfort, and it will be too hard to fall asleep. If you exercise a few hours before, however, your body temperature will be starting to decline as you’re ready to sleep.
You can bank sleep
“Sleep debt” is what happens when you don’t get enough sleep over a cumulative period of time. You may lose an hour on Sunday or work a longer shift on Monday night, each hour or two cutting into your sleep patterns. But Nancy says it’s possible to “bank” sleep.
“There have been studies in the United States that have looked at people who have banked extra sleep before going into a period where they know they will be sleep-deprived, and they have found some benefit from that.”
Get help when you need it
Anxiety and depression can compound sleep problems, as can other health issues. If you’re having persistent problems falling asleep, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Nancy adds that treatment may include non-pharmaceutical solutions, like cognitive behaviour therapy and meditation, rather than sleeping pills.
“If people think they can burn the candle at both ends and not get as much sleep as would typically be ideal for them, chances are it will come back to bite them,” she warns. “Getting a Red Bull or an extra coffee doesn’t replace the need for sleep. Sleep is a biological need.”
This story is part of Changing Minds: Creating a healthy campus – an initiative that makes mental health a priority. The program connects training opportunities, support services, resources and stories from real people across the MacEwan University community.
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