Written by Brandon Grentz
Editor’s note: The following article is written by a counseling professional from Counseling Services in partnership with the Southern Accent.
One of the most important areas of life that affects mental health is sleep. It can affect our mood and our ability to cope effectively, as well as our emotional, mental and physical health.
The CDC notes that approximately 32% of those aged 18 to 24 are getting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep time. We’ve heard people say that sleep is important, but how does it impact your mental health?
Studies show that sleep helps to lower the stress hormone cortisol, increase immune health and protect us against mental illness. Improvement in cognitive functioning is another benefit that provides better memory retrieval, improved potential for decision making and better tolerance to stress.
If you’ve ever tried to handle stressful events when you were tired, you’ve probably noticed how quickly the stress affected you due to your decreased tolerance. Think of your tired brain as a glass of water that is already mostly full. If the water represents stress, adding only a little bit more will cause it to overflow.
Sleep helps reduce stress levels and cortisol, like draining water out of the glass to allow more capacity for added stress. If you push off sleep in order to finish things, you will actually become fatigued and less able to handle stress.
If sleep is so important, why don’t college students get sleep? There can be many challenges to getting enough sleep, especially in college where it can seem difficult to fit seven to nine hours of sleep per night. Anxiety or depression can make it difficult to “turn off your thoughts” in some cases. Certain medications can have side effects that make it difficult to sleep or make you drowsy during the day. And, if you nap during the day, it may be harder to sleep at night.
Caffeine, alcohol and drug usage can also affect sleep due to the stimulant nature of certain drinks or substances. There are also sleep disorders that can make it difficult to either fall asleep, stay asleep or get quality sleep.
So, you ask, what can I do to get better sleep? The best thing you can do is to establish a sleep routine. Giving your body a nightly routine creates associations with bedtime activities so your brain knows when it’s time to sleep.
Avoid watching TV or reading in bed during the day, as your body may associate your bed with activities done during the day and make it harder to sleep there at night. Stimulants should be reduced or limited to earlier times of the day, and make sure to get good exercise at least a few hours before bedtime.
Facilitate a comfortable environment and do restful activities before bed to wind down into sleep. Listen to your body if it is telling you it is tired and make sure that this school year you are working smarter, not harder.