With hectic schedules and exam anxiety, students spend endless hours at night battling insomnia. Features editor Mariana Ionova investigates the disorder and what students can do to fight it
At 4 a.m., Justin Bull is still feverishly typing away at his computer, trying to tire his mind into submission with an assignment that isn’t due for weeks. His eyes are blood-shot and his lids are heavy but, for him, sleeping is almost impossible.
The second-year computer science student has spent countless nights like this since he developed insomnia four years ago. The 20-year-old had been a straight-A student in high school but, within a few months of developing the disorder, he became so sleep deprived that he couldn’t focus on anything. Soon, his grades began slipping. “I don’t know how I even got the marks to get into university.”
Even though he did get into Ryerson, his sleep problems intensified as essays and assignments began piling up. His insomnia came in spurts and bouts. He could sleep normally for days and then go for a full week with barely a nap. No matter how exhausted Bull was, he found himself suddenly becoming alert and unable to halt his racing thoughts at night. “It’s this sudden burst of energy around 12 at night, as if I’ve had coffee, even though I haven’t.”
Sleep disturbances are among the most common problems plaguing university students, who often toss and turn with anxiety about their course work, their jobs or their social lives. About a third of students report occasional difficulty falling or staying asleep and between 10 and 20 per cent experience chronic insomnia.
Symptoms of insomnia typically include difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep and can vary in severity. Students who experience symptoms for less than one week are said to have transient insomnia, while those who have trouble sleeping for anywhere between one and three weeks are classified as having short-term insomnia. If the problem continues for longer than three weeks, it is considered to be chronic insomnia.
Dr. Colleen Carney, an assistant professor at Ryerson, said that insomnia is a growing problem among university students mainly because campuses are breeding grounds for stressors that can keep students up at night. Carney came to Ryerson in 2008 from Duke University to direct a new Sleep and Depression
Lab that specializes in conducting clinical trials for those experiencing insomnia and depression.
Carney explained that, much of the time, students are kept up by situational factors that come with university life.
Insomnia often kicks in when a student is worrying about passing an exam the following morning or trying to tune out their roommate’s 5 a.m. karaoke after-party.
“Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a student actually has a sleeping disturbance or if they just have lots of stressors related to university life,” Carney said.
But, aside from noisy rooming arrangements and looming assignment deadlines, the biggest contributor to insomnia is the wildly fluctuating time schedule that most students keep. Carney said most students go to bed at different times each night, which throws off the body’s
biological clock. And, when you try to go to sleep at an earlier time, your body doesn’t recognize that it is time to wind down yet.
The lack of sleep that follows extended periods of insomnia can eventually catch up with students and cause serious health problems. In some cases, students can end up being hospitalized for exhaustion.
“They think nothing of pulling an all-nighter,” she said about time-strapped university students, adding that most don’t even consider the serious impacts sleep deprivation can have on the body.
But Carney warned that, even if irregular sleeping schedules don’t land students in the hospital, they can still put a tremendous amount of stress on the body.
The effect of sleep deprivation resembles intense jet lag after a long flight and often results in reduced concentration, lapses in memory, poor coordination, irritability and impaired social functioning.
“It’s like you’re flying through multiple time zones every night.”
At the beginning of last semester Bull had reached that point and his insomnia was interfering with his academic and social life so much that he had to start taking prescribed medication to get to sleep. He had struggled to concentrate in his classes and had began to fear that his grades would deteriorate. “I’m basically on autopilot. I can’t absorb information properly. After three nights of no sleep, you feel miserable.”
But after nearly five months on medication, he decided to stop taking it. “I don’t like the idea of depending on a pill to get me to sleep,” he explained, noting that he now tries to overcome insomnia with more natural sleep inducers like herbal teas.
Research on sleep disorders has also shown that there is a strong link between insomnia and depression, with nearly
40 per cent of insomniacs also reporting depressive symptoms.
“If you have insomnia it can worsen into depression,” said Molly Atwood, a fourth-year psychology student who works with patients participating in the lab trial. She noted that, much of the time, prolonged sleep deprivation leads to irritability and a negative mood that can become chronic in students.
Olya Shuhatovich, manager of the Sleep Research Lab, said that one way to treat insomnia is through cognitive behavioral therapy (CBH), which aims to change individuals’ sleeping habits and to teach them positive routines that will improve their sleeping patters. The therapy focuses on teaching those suffering from sleeping disorders how to create a sleep environment that promotes rest, setting regular sleeping schedules, and avoiding stimulating foods and beverages.
Shuhatovic, who leads a trial CBT for insomnia at the Sleep and Depression Lab, said the therapy has helped many patients overcome sleep problems. “It’s very effective. We’ve had people completely recover in the trial in four sessions.”
For Bull, one thing that helped him cope with insomnia was incorporating regular exercise into his schedule. “I have started going to the gym and tiring my body and it seems to be working.”
But the most important change that he has made has been curbing his anxiety about school and life. “I’ve tried really hard to keep low stress levels. It definitely helps.”
Tips for a good night’s sleep
1. Keep a cool room
Cranking up the heat in your bedroom may be tempting on a freezing night, but slowly broiling yourself could be the reason why you toss and turn in bed for four hours.
Experts say students can curb sleeping problems by keeping their room temperature at about 19 degrees Celsius year-round.
2. No daytime naps
Most students are dying to take a quick, one hour-nap after pulling an all-nighter, this can confuse the body’s internal clock and lead to hours of insomnia at night. The best way to ensure a good sleep is to avoid daytime naps, no matter how tempting it may be to sprawl out in the student lounge.
3. Have a regular bedtime
For most students, this is nearly impossible largely because of essays, jobs and, most importantly, drunken Saturday nights. But insomnia experts recommend that those suffering from sleeping problems at least try to go to bed at around the same time every night so that their bodies develop a routine.
4. Wind down before bed
To avoid sleep problems, start preparing your body for rest about 90 minutes before actually going to bed. Avoid checking your email, watching TV, working on your laptop or talking on the phone right before bedtime. Doing these activities in your bed can also lead you to associate it with everything but sleep, which can
intensify insomnia. Try reserving your bed for sleep and various fun, related activities. Also, speaking of fun activities, sex can also induce sleep and combat insomnia, so you may want to consider its therapeutic value.
5. Don’t eat or drink before bed
Most of the time, the reason students can’t sleep is because they load on caffeine and carbohydrates shortly before going to bed. Ideally, do not drinking coffee after 2 p.m. and avoid ravaging a pack of chips or half a tub of ice cream at least three hours
before going to bed. Some students also rely on nighcaps (or binge drinking) to get to sleep quickly but this type of therapy, while effective, results in poor-quality sleep.
6. Hold off on the workout
Although exercise can help tire out the body and can alleviate sleep disturbances, the adrenaline of a work-out right before bedtime pumps up the body and leads to sleeplessness. Doctors recommend avoiding exercise at least three hours before bed.
7. Get up when you can’t sleep
Most students who suffer from insomnia oftentimes lay awake for hours, frustrated and anxious about how tired they’ll be in the morning. Instead, get out of bed if you are unable to fall asleep after 20 minutes and read your really boring politics textbook.
Photo: Lindsay Boeckl