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Helping College Students Manage Sleep Issues

Healthy sleep habits give college students an edge

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If you're a student heading to college this fall, it’s a good time to think about healthy sleep habits. Studies of college students show that they tend to sleep less than the 8 hours per night that most older adolescents require–the average is around 7 hours.

In a large study of college students’ sleep, more than one in three described their sleep as “fairly to very bad.” The costs of too little sleep have been demonstrated over and over, ranging from irritability and depression to academic problems to falling asleep in class–or even at the wheel.

There are many causes of sleep problems among during the college years. As with any age group, stress can get in the way of a good night’s sleep. Furthermore, college students often are still developing the skills that are needed to cope with significant levels of stress, and so you may be struggling to deal with new challenges, both academic and emotional.

The novelty of living on a college campus surrounded by your peers can also make it hard to go to bed at a decent hour, especially on the weekends when there are lots of late night social activities. Being able to sleep late the next day makes it even easier to stay up late. Unfortunately big differences between week and weekend sleep schedules can lead to sleep problems, and among college students this difference tends to be around 2 hours (~8:00 AM wake-up time during the week vs. ~10:00 AM on weekends).

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The good news is that there are ways you can develop better sleep habits, and virtually all of them are free and non-addictive. I’ve compiled a list of many of the recommendations here. Most college counseling centers will be able to direct students to campus resources on stress management.

Managing sleep problems and stress behaviorally tends to be more effective in the long-term than pharmacological approaches such as using alcohol to fall asleep (you'll sleep worse in the long run), taking over-the-counter sleeping aids like ZzzQuil (diphenhydramine, or repackaged Benadryl), or relying on prescription sleep aids like Ambien or Lunesta. For individuals with chronic insomnia, there are short-term cognitive-behavioral treatments that can be very effective.

Each life stage presents unique challenges to healthy sleep habits, and college is no exception. With practice you can develop habits that will help you sleep well during college and beyond.