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Sleep and Grad School: How Important Is It For Students?

The latest research on sleep hygiene and well-being for graduate students

Nobody goes to graduate school expecting a walk in the park — long hours spent in the lab, in the the library, and sitting in front of a computer screen are just an accepted part of daily life. For many students, it is the most energetically demanding time of their lives, not just for the hours put in, but the cognitive resources required to think critically and absorb complex material. While such an assiduous lifestyle should perhaps warrant more rest than normal, sleep often takes a backseat to projects, reading, and deadlines.

Sure, every student knows sleep is important. But how important is it, really?

According to Northern Illinois University professor and Industrial-Organizational psychologist Dr. Larissa Barber, sleep is the single most important health behavior we engage in. In a 2010 study, she and her colleague found that healthy sleep patterns play a critical role in self-regulation — an executive function in the brain that controls our behaviors (Stress and Health, 2010). It helps us to override urges, initiate behaviors, and persist. It tells us to get out of bed and get to class on time, to start working on that thesis/dissertation, and to keep trudging through that dense journal article, despite the impulse to incessantly check e-mail and Facebook. Without adequate sleep, our brains are less equipped to control our behaviors and direct them towards our goals, which can spell trouble for burdened graduate students.

"I would say that graduate school is probably the ultimate self-regulatory exercise," Barber said. "Almost every critical performance outcome in graduate school requires self-regulatory resources, or energy."

Not only is self-regulation important for knowing when to buckle down and focus, or get yourself out of bed in the morning, it's also critical for managing emotions and stress. Sleeping less can cause people to feel more threatened by stressful events, which in response, can lead to dysfunctional coping.

"Things that usually rate as minor stressors all of a sudden seem like a big deal," Barber said. "So, sleep can often mean the difference between you crying after receiving negative feedback from your advisor on a paper, or calmly evaluating the information as constructive or motivating."

How much sleep is enough? While most people think of the standard as 8 hours, studies show that performance decrements don't appear until you hit below 7 hours, with less-than-6 hours showing a large effect. But personality and individual differences do play a role in a person's "magic number." On average, people need between 6 and 8 hours of sleep. However, people who score high on extraversion (talkative, out-going, assertive) tend to recharge a bit faster than others. Same goes for older people, and people with high metabolisms.

But 7 hours a night may not get you off the hook. It's not just the amount of sleep that matters for positive well-being and performance outcomes; sleep routines are just as important. Barber's study found that in order to see stress levels decline and self-control improve, people need to get enough sleep consistently over the course of the work week.

Further evidence for the importance of sleep routines comes from a study of the effect of staying up late and sleeping late on the weekends, which is a common practice for young adults. CUNY researchers found that a delayed sleep schedule on the weekend can seriously hurt cognitive performance and overall mood in the beginning of the week, through "Sunday night insomnia" and the "Monday morning blues" (Psychology and Health, 2001). Scientists suggest that a later wake-up time prevents exposure to morning light which throws our circadian rhythm off kilter, and subsequently shifts our body's sleep schedule.

Barber finds it troubling that people commonly overlook routines in favor of just catching up on sleep at a later date.

"People often think of sleep in compensatory terms, like a credit card — I’ll just pay it back later!" she said. "But they forget what I call the 'hidden interest rates,' which is circadian rhythm disruption. Poor Monday always gets a bad reputation, but the reality is that we set ourselves up for Monday failure via our weekend sleep habits."

In addition to getting enough sleep and getting it routinely, high-quality rest is also an important factor to consider. Studies indicate that sleep hygiene is one of the greatest predictors of overall sleep quality (Hong Kong Med J, 2010). This refers to general behavioral practices and environmental factors that allow for a sound sleep, like diet, exercise, light, temperature, noise, as well as sleep schedule and pre-sleep activities. On the flip side, poor sleep quality is associated with significant psychological distress, depression, confusion, and generally lower life satisfaction. Poor sleep hygiene, in specific, is linked to a higher prevalence of insomnia and chronic sleep difficulties.

In a 2010 study, Chinese researchers found that despite its importance in sleep quality, the level of sleep hygiene knowledge among university students was "relatively inadequate" (Hong Kong Med J, 2010). A more recent study found that although sleep disturbances are often comorbid with most psychiatric disorders, and can exacerbate symptoms, graduate clinical psychology students receive little training in the assessment of sleep and treatment of sleep disorders (Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 2012).

So give your sleep hygiene the attention it deserves, and don't treat it like an afterthought. It has a far more profound effect on your well-being than your probably even realize.

Take a moment to educate yourself on sleep hygiene with these research-based tips.

- Don't take naps

- Avoid sleep medications (prescription or over-the-counter)

- Use the bed only for sleeping, and lie down only when sleepy. If you can't fall asleep within 10 minutes, do something else not work or school-related

- Avoid caffeinated drinks at least 4 hours before bedtime. This includes the obvious culprits like coffee, but also includes chocolate milk, certain teas, and some vitamin drinks

- Avoid nicotine and alcohol 4 hours before bedtime

- Avoid glowing screens before bedtime: TV, phone, tablets, computer, etc. The light interferes with with your body's ability to wind down

- Don't stay up late to do work. Research shows that staying up 17-19 consecutive hours is similar to having a blood alcohol limit over the legal limit. So, working late at night is like writing a paper while drunk. You're better off waking up early and starting on it first thing in the morning

- Find out your sleep need and stick to it

- Don’t sleep with your phone on (or in the same room). Remove the temptation to check it altogether

- Put a notebook next to your bed to write down things you think of before bedtime (including brilliant thesis/dissertation ideas) to prevent you from worrying about remembering it the next day or getting up to check into it

- Enlist “sleep allies” to help you stick to your schedule, such as a spouse or roommate. Anyone who can tell you (or text you), “Shut it down,” at a certain time of night

- Put your sleep time in your calendar and protect it like you would class time or your dissertation defense day. It’s non-negotiable (only in case of emergency)

- Manage your time well overall. If you find yourself sacrificing sleep, then you have too many things on your high-priority list (that are not sleep) and you need to re-evaluate (a) what all you are trying to do and (b) how you are doing it

TAKE THE QUIZ: Sleep Hygiene Index

(Assessment of Sleep Hygiene Using the Sleep Hygiene Index, Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 2006)

Options: Always (5), frequently (4), sometimes (3), rarely (2), never (1).
Sum the items for your score. The higher your score, the more maladaptive your sleep hygiene status is.

1. I take daytime naps lasting two or more hours.
2. I go to bed at different times from day to day.
3. I get out of bed at different times from day to day.
4. I exercise to the point of sweating within 1 hour of going to bed.
5. I stay in bed longer than I should two or three times a week.
6. I use alcohol, tobacco, or caffeine within 4 hours of going to bed or after going to bed.
7. I do something that may wake me up before bedtime (for example: play video games, use the internet, or clean).
8. I go to bed feeling stressed, angry, upset, or nervous.
9. I use my bed for things other than sleeping or sex (for example: watch television, read, eat, or study).
10. I sleep on an uncomfortable bed (for example: poor mattress or pillow, too much or not enough blankets).
11. I sleep in an uncomfortable bedroom (for example: too bright, too stuffy, too hot, too cold, or too noisy).
12. I do important work before bedtime (for example: pay bills, schedule, or study).
13. I think, plan, or worry when I am in bed.

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