“How [do you] recover from several nights of insomnia [in a row]?”
—Hydra B., Portland State University, Oregon
Sleep problems are common for students and can have a huge impact on your ability to learn. They influence your mood, weight, and athletic performance—virtually every part of your life.
Let’s define our terms. “Insomnia” refers to the inability to fall asleep despite our efforts to do so. A more common scenario for students would be staying up or sleeping very limited hours several nights in a row to study for finals or complete end-of-term assignments.
A few nights in a row of very limited hours of good-quality sleep can be disabling. I’ve seen students effectively psychotic under such circumstances. What’s curious is that in some people, even though they are completely exhausted and know it, they seem to have fallen out of the habit of sleeping and have trouble getting back into the rhythm of regular sleep.
What to do? As a first step, try the following:
- Try to get up and go to bed around the same time every day; don’t let your timing shift by more than an hour on weekends.
- Exercise regularly: If you find that being active in the evenings keeps you awake at night, try it earlier in the day.
- Pay attention to your nutrition: Eat regular meals throughout the day.
- Avoid caffeine after 3 p.m.
- Make sure your bedroom is comfortable, cool, and dark.
- Limit your screen exposure (including cell phones, tablets, laptops, TV, video games, etc.) for the last hour before bed (preferably, two hours).
- Prepare yourself mentally for sleep: Remind yourself that you’ve done what you can for today and now your task is to sleep.
- Do some pleasure reading or listen to soothing music. I like to read mysteries when I’m having trouble sleeping well. I can concentrate on trying to solve the mystery rather than getting worked up about the real concerns of my daily life—all of which will be more easily managed after a good night’s sleep.
What about medication for sleep?
Sleeping pills, such as Ambien and Lunesta, may put you to sleep a little sooner but they don’t respect your sleep system. “They suppress REM sleep and also affect memory consolidation. I might give them to a student in crisis, but cognitive-behavior therapy has a 70–80 percent success rate for helping those who suffer from chronic insomnia and it does not interfere with the sleep cycle,” says Dr. Shelley Hershner, director of the Collegiate Sleep Disorder Center at the University of Michigan.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, I recommend speaking with a health care provider, especially if you are feeling anxious, disorganized, or otherwise distressed. They can give you custom strategies and assess you for a possible sleep disorder or other relevant health issue.
Dr. Davis Smith is an internist practicing in Connecticut and at Trinity College in Hartford. He specializes in the care of adolescents and GLBTQ patients.