Vicious sleep cycle

Students lose sleep over their academic priorities

Over time, sleeplessness has grown into a cultural marker of college campuses–so much so that around the University of Nevada, Reno campus, the idea of a students at the university getting eight hours of sleep garners one of two reactions: laughter or skepticism.

As a senior at UNR, I can understand the reasons for this. As the clock nears 3 a.m. on the morning of yet another Monday, I find myself midway through my 10th all-nighter in three weeks. I understand sleep deprivation intimately. The crippling lethargy, heavy eyelids and existential angst that accompany the choice to forego yet another night of sleep are old friends.

And at some point in time, this Hollywood trope of the frazzled student fueled solely by caffeine, junk food, and a bit of bitterness became the standard for college students everywhere.

But why has a vital bodily function like sleep become so nonchalantly disregarded?

“It’s an accurate stereotype that college kids don’t sleep,” said Megan Jones, a sophomore at UNR. “But it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. We pretty much control it, but we do nothing about it. We have a full workload of homework, and normally have jobs. But then we still devote so much time to going out—and Netflix.”

Many other students at UNR attribute their lack of sleep to the university’s new policy of “15 to finish.” The regulation requires students to take on 15 credits, an average of five classes. This is instead of the previous standard of 12 credits, and, unless granted an exception, is the only way to maintain the status of a full-time student–a requirement for most scholarships and financial aid.

“Because of the 15 credit policy, in order for me to get my financial aid, I have to take more credits than I planned for,” says UNR student Savannah Abraham. “It’s been a much bigger work load than I’m used to. It’s definitely affected my sleep, and I find myself more stressed, but it’s the only way I can afford to go to school.”

Maggie Eirenschmalz, a grad student and a Core Humanities discussion leader, recognizes the problem on campus.

“Students are encouraged to take so many credits, and they might even dare to have hobbies,” she said. Then there’s the issue of actually getting good grades. So they pull all-nighters to write that paper, or to practice that presentation. I think it’s hard for students to find time to sleep, and I think a lot of them are overloaded.”

While the college environment might not emphasize it, sleep is paramount.

“Getting enough quality sleep plays a vital role in our physical and emotional health and wellbeing,” said Dr. Cheryl Hug-English, UNR Student Health Center medical director. “For students, particularly when their daily schedules aren’t consistent, a nightly eight hours of sleep is what keeps the brain able to function at high levels.”

The loss of sleep presents a number of physical consequences for students. According to Dr. Hug-English, when a student frequently loses sleep, it alters chemicals in their body, like hormones. Not only can this compromise an immune system and make the student more susceptible to illnesses, but it also affects the ability of their body to heal itself.

Some of the most detrimental outcomes of sleep loss for students are the mental effects. The irony is that while studying and schoolwork are often the most common reason students miss out on sleep, that sleep loss directly affects the efficacy of their studying, as the ability to concentrate on, process, and retain information weakens with sleep loss.

UNR student Kelsey Wilson sees no alternative.

“Studying is kind of a catch-22 for me,” Wilson said. “My school schedule means I only have time late at night to study, even though I know I need a full eight hours to perform well on tests. But if I don’t give up sleep to study more, I won’t even understand the material.”

There is an array of side effects of getting less sleep that affect an individual’s emotional health. Problems like a lack of motivation, irritability, mood swings, increased anxiety and even depression can arise.

“Anecdotally, most people have something like an invisible cushion of tolerance or flexibility that surrounds and protects us from the daily things that bother us,” said Dr. Cindy Marczynski, director of Counseling Services at UNR. “When someone becomes extra tired or stressed, that cushion flattens a little, meaning our protective layer isn’t as strong. Suddenly small things like your roommate snoring become disasters.”

One thing that students, professors, and health professionals at the university can agree on is that structuring time to include study, sleep and fun is the best way to succeed.

“Most of us put sleep on the back burner,” Abraham said. “But there needs to be a balance. It’s about learning to manage your time evenly between school to keep your grades up, sleep to keep you healthy, fun to keep you sane, and Netflix to keep you caught up.”

Sleep tricks Here are some tips to make your time in bed more effective:

Establish a routine: In the chaos that composes the daily schedule of the average student, try to find regularity in your sleeping schedule. By waking up and going to sleep at the same times every day, your body and mind will become accustomed to winding down and starting up at certain times, making both your sleeping and waking hours more productive.

Compartmentalize your time: Although it is tedious, setting aside specific times to do certain activities allows our brains to more quickly switch gears from one mode to another. Instead of studying, napping, and spending free time sporadically throughout the day, set aside manageable chunks and be consistent with them.

Weed and booze don't actually help with sleep: Sure, there's nothing better than the sleepy stage of drunkenness. However, while marijuana and alcohol might put you to sleep, they won't actually keep you asleep, and after a few hours, they can wake up your body. (Also, marijuana is illegal. So, there's that.)

Don't overload yourself: At a school that demands students take 15 credits, maintain a good GPA, as well as find time to participate in extracurricular activities, it's easy to bite off more than you can chew. While some thrive under pressure, it is OK not to be one of those people. If taking nine credits a semester means that you can pay for school, get good grades, participate in clubs and feel well-rested and stress-free while achieving the end goal of a degree, don't be afraid to stay at school an extra semester. Rome wasn't built in a day and not everyone graduates in four years. There is no shame in a victory lap.

Leave your bed for sleeping: Make your bed a sacred space and keep television, homework, and Facebook out of it. One of the reasons people have such a hard time falling asleep is because our brains don't associate bed with rest and relaxation. Instead, set aside places specifically for studying and surfing the internet, and only go to bed when you plan on relaxing in it.

Listen to your body: It's a sad fact that even with following all of the tips listed, all-nighters will still happen. While having one every once in a while won't kill you, make sure to listen to your body's needs. It's a matter of recognizing that maybe foregoing sleep on Thursday to finish your term paper means that you probably shouldn't go out on Friday. Sleeping on weekends does not make you boring. Falling asleep when you're out at the clubs does.