Life at university can bring about a lot of new changes. You meet a lot of new people, have to get acquainted with a completely new environment, while discovering yourself and your new found independence. I remember when I first got to uni, planning out my meals, organizing time for deadlines, as well as giving myself opportunities to go out with friends was difficult; but what I found even harder was making sure I actually got enough sleep. As we all know sleep is very important and lack thereof can have an impact on your physical and mental wellbeing. How sleep has an effect on our mental health will be discussed in this blog as well as helpful tips that can improve your quality of sleep. This will help to ensure your health is at its best during your time at university!
For many, college is a time to find oneself, make lifelong connections, and enhance your professional skills to be successful in the future. However, for many students, university can become quite mentally taxing. With all the changes and increased workload, university can become a very stressful and mentally challenging time. As we all may know, college can frequently bring about long nights of studying (or partying) and obtaining eight hours or more of sleep can seem impossible. Lack of sleep can have many negative effects on your physical health and can even cause your mental health to decline. So ensuring you maintain a healthy sleeping pattern can make all the difference in how you cope and manage your life at university.
Poor sleep among college students can increase the chances of depression, anxiety, and poor academic performance. Life at university can become highly stressful in which experiencing mental illnesses is very common within the U.S. student population. According to the National Education Association (NEA) more than 60% of college students document experiencing at least one mental health illness whilst being at university (Flannery, 2023). With this high of a percentage, it’s good to know how you can keep track of your mental health and ensure you have all the tools to keep a healthy mind.
Anxiety and Worrying
Being away from home and getting used to working and living independently can make university quite stressful. Not getting a good night’s sleep can make these worries and any anxiety you feel a lot worse. It was originally thought that anxiety and worrying caused distress in college students which resulted in poor sleep patterns; but in reality, students with anxiety disorders are more likely to have a sleeping disorder such as insomnia and vice versa (Mbous, Nili, Mohamed, Dwibedi, 2022). Sleep disturbances, such as insomnia and nightmares have been linked to generalized anxiety disorders and PTSD (Staner, 2003).
According to the National Sleep Foundation, it is recommended for young adults to receive seven to nine hours of sleep. Statistics show that 60% of college students on average only get up to seven hours of sleep a night, resulting in poor sleep patterns (Mbous, Nili, Mohamed, Dwibedi, 2022). Pulling an all-nighter to finish an essay may seem like a good idea, however not letting your body sleep can cause a rise in your levels of anxiety and stress, which could lead to poor academic performance.
Lack of sleep can also have a negative effect on how we deal with emotional situations. Research has shown that there is a psychosocial correlation between sleep and emotion, and deprivation of sleep can decrease a persons ability to regulate their emotions (Vandekerckhove, Wang, 2017). This suggests that when a particularly stressful situation arises, if you aren’t sleeping enough, you may not be able to deal with the situation effectively. As a result, you may feel even more stressed than before, and your quality of sleep could possibly worsen.
Depression is one of the most common mental health issues students face today. According to the Mental Health Foundation, the main symptoms of depression are:
Loss of interest or pleasure
Feelings of guilt or low self-worth
Lack of energy
Lapses in concentration
Disturbances in sleep
Not sleeping well can increase your likelihood of developing depression and worsen your symptoms if you are already experiencing depressive symptoms. In fact, research shows that even one night of poor sleep can cause an increase in depressive symptoms. Research surrounding first year medical students found that those who had more sleep disturbances or who slept less than 6 hours a night had a higher rate of depression. Not only this, but those who slept less than 6 hours also made more medical errors (Kalmbach, Arnedt, Song, Guille, Sen, 2017).
So what is the correlation between sleep and depression? Well, the body produces a hormonal neurotransmitter called serotonin which is also referred to as the “happy chemical”, due to its role in contributing to a persons wellbeing and happiness. These are things quite obviously impacted by depression. One theory researchers have about why depression occurs, is due to the link between serotonin and lack of sleep. A study led by Amelia Gallitano, MD, Ph.D., at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, found that sleep deprivation can cause an increase in serotonin levels. Increased serotonin levels have been linked to various other mental illnesses including but not limited to, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders, and even schizophrenia (Lin, Lee, Yang, 2014).
It’s very clear how your sleep can negatively impact one’s mental health. In order to ensure you stay healthy mentally, it’s important to begin by prioritizing healthier sleep patterns. Pulling an all-nighter, or even just sleeping less than usual can have quite the negative impact.
How to get a better night’s sleep
Now, you may be wondering what steps you could take to improve your quality of sleep. Here are a few tips and techniques you could try to promote better sleeping patterns.
There is evidence to suggest that caffeine may not have as much of an effect on our sleep as we originally thought. Although caffeine intake has been linked to falling asleep faster; a lot of research has shown that it doesn’t matter if you manage to fall asleep quickly, it’s the quality of sleep you have that is negatively impacted by caffeine. In fact, studies have proven that consuming caffeine even six hours before bedtime can affect your sleep significantly (Drake, Roehrs, Shambroom, Roth, 2013). Now, I understand that students need a lot of energy in order to stay on top of their responsibilities during their time at university. But, there are healthier ways one can do to help boost their energy rather than consuming caffeine. For example, increasing exercise, staying hydrated, high protein meals, and eating every three to four hours have all been proven to increase energy levels. So, in order to ensure your sleep is of the best quality, it’s probably best to try healthier alternatives to increase your energy instead of consuming caffeine.
Drink Less Alcohol
Going out and drinking with friends is a big part of university life. However, if you want to get a good night’s sleep, trading in the alcohol for an early night in, isn’t the worst idea. Similar to that of caffeine, consuming alcohol before bed can cause you to fall asleep quicker; however, as previously mentioned, falling asleep instantaneously doesn’t always guarantee good quality of sleep. Research has shown that most people report less sleep, worse sleep quality, and sleep disturbances after consuming alcohol. Furthermore, research has shown that alcohol does cause you to sleep for a less amount of time and can cause a reduction in the amount of slow wave sleep (deep sleep) that you have. Obtaining a healthy amount of deep sleeping is crucial in regard to how and how much we learn and our memory consolidation. So not only can alcohol have a negative impact on your sleep patterns, but it can also create issues with your ability to learn and do well academically.
Relax before Sleeping
First off, for those of you who are struggling with anxiety and worrying about university, there is research out there that has various helpful ways of calming and settling your mind before going to bed. They’re self-help and also very easy to carry out at home and they work!
First, we have Constructive Worry. Spend 15 minutes before bed, writing out any worries or stressors you have that could interfere with your sleep. If you get your worries out before going to sleep, then there is no need to think about these worries when it actually is bedtime.
Secondly, you could try Imagery Distraction. For this intervention, just lie in bed and imagine an interesting and engaging situation. But make sure it’s relaxing and not something that will get you all fired up. Focusing all of your attention on this situation means you can ignore your worries and stresses.
The final intervention is very much similar to Constructive Worry, but instead of writing down everything that worries you, you write down all the positive experiences you’ve had, so your mind is focused on the good things, rather than the bad. This is referred to as Gratitude Intervention.
These interventions should be useful in helping you deal with any worries or anxieties you may have. Avoiding alcohol, caffeine, and trying relaxation techniques will potentially help you in kickstarting a good night’s sleep. While also preventing any deterioration in your physical and mental health. This will ensure you can make the most out of your experience at your university!
Digdon, N., & Koble, A. (2011). Effects of Constructive Worry, Imagery Distraction, and Gratitude Interventions on Sleep Quality: A Pilot Trial. Online Library Wiley. https://iaap-journals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01049.x
Drake, C., Roehrs, T., Shambroom, J., & Roth, T. (2013). Caffeine effects on sleep taken 0, 3, or 6 hours before going to bed. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine. https://jcsm.aasm.org/doi/10.5664/jcsm.3170
Flannery, M. E. (2023). The Mental Health Crisis on college campuses. NEA. https://www.nea.org/nea-today/all-news-articles/mental-health-crisis-college-campuses
Kalmbach, D., Arnedt, T., Song, P., & Guille, C., Sen, S. (2017). Sleep disturbance and short sleep as risk factors for depression and perceived medical errors in first-year residents. U.S. National Library of Medicine. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28369654/
Lin, S.-H., Lee, L.-T., & Yang, Y. K. (2014, December). Serotonin and mental disorders: A concise review on molecular neuroimaging evidence. Clinical psychopharmacology and neuroscience : the official scientific journal of the Korean College of Neuropsychopharmacology. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4293164/
Mbous, Y., Nili, M., Mohamed, R., & Dwibedi, N. (2022, September 15). Psychosocial correlates of insomnia among college students. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/pcd/issues/2022/22_0060.htm#
Staner, L. (2003, September). Sleep and anxiety disorders. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181635/
Vandekerckhove, M., & Wang, Y.-L. (2017). Emotion, emotion regulation and sleep: An intimate relationship. AIMS neuroscience. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32341948/
Zhao, X., Ozols, A., Meyers, K., Campbell, J., McBride, A., Marballi, K., Maple, A., Raskin, C., Mishra, A., Noss, S., Beck, K., Khoshaba, R., Bhaskara, A., Godbole, M., Lish, J., Kang, P., Hu, C., Palner, M., Overgaard, A., … Gallitano, A. (2022). Acute sleep deprivation upregulates serotonin 2A receptors in the frontal cortex of mice via the immediate early gene EGR3. Molecular psychiatry. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/35001075/