It’s another night of tossing and turning. After many sleepless nights, you finally realize that telling your brain to shut off doesn’t work so well. It doesn’t help that you’re constantly looking at the clock as your anxiety about getting less and less sleep increases with each minute that passes. You’ve got an important test tomorrow morning, but you just can’t seem to doze off no matter how many sheep you count. So why are you having trouble falling asleep? We talked to Dr. Aneesa Shariff, staff psychologist at the University of British Columbia, about some of the factors that could be keeping you up at night.
1. Studying late at night
When cramming for an exam, you might use every bit of time that you have left in the day, right up until bedtime. But hitting the hay soon after closing those textbooks could be the reason why you’re having trouble falling asleep.
“Sometimes when we’re doing really stimulating activities close to our bedtimes, that can really inhibit our ability to then get into a relaxed state and fall asleep,” says Dr. Shariff. This includes studying late at night, which many collegiettes may be guilty of. Because studying and trying to retain information is mentally stimulating, it could keep you too alert to fall asleep.
Dr. Shariff recommends putting away your homework and class notes at least 30 minutes to an hour before going to bed. Use the rest of the time to set up a consistent bedtime routine to do relaxing things, such as listening to calming music or light reading for pleasure.
Ashley Young, a senior at West Virginia Wesleyan College, understands the importance of a consistent routine. “For me, after I’ve finished all of my work and it’s time for bed, I go brush and whiten my teeth, wash my face, brush my hair... Just the necessary little things that have to be done that don’t take much thought. It not only kills two birds with one stone, but by the time I’m finished, I’m calmed down, relaxed and ready to sleep.”
2. Persistent thoughts (stress and/or anxiety)
Sometimes our thoughts just won’t leave us alone, whether it’s those pesky guy problems or all the errands that you have to run the next day. Anxious thoughts and feelings are common factors of sleeplessness for people, especially college students.
“During times of increased stress or worry or time pressure, so for students during midterms or as they prepare for final exams, a lot of students commonly experience sleep problems during those time periods because of the pressure they may be experiencing and just the increased demands on their time,” says Dr. Shariff.
“When you’re worrying a lot and your thoughts are going off in all different directions before bedtime, that can definitely impede your ability to get into a relaxed state to be in to be able to fall asleep because your brain is still really mentally active and going from one thought to the other.”
Try keeping a notepad by your bed. Dr. Shariff suggests writing down any persistent thoughts that are on your mind, whether it’s a to-do list or the thoughts that are bothering you. Putting your concerns on paper will help relieve your mind. “Instead of holding all of [those thoughts] in your brain, just write it down on a piece of paper and put it aside to be able to come back to the next morning.”
Jessica Schimm, a recent graduate of San Francisco State University, uses a journal to keep her worries at bay. “I fill out a brief diary entry, always focusing on the positive things of my day.”
She also listens to podcasts to keep her mind off of her anxieties. “Before I listened to nightly podcasts, I used to go through my whole day in my head and it would keep me up even later. Now I have a much easier time falling asleep because I’m completely focused on something else, and the things I listen to have made for great conversation starters.”
Another way to wind down and forget about your worries is to consciously take time for yourself. “Before going to sleep I think it’s important to fit in a little ‘me time,’ to essentially do things just for yourself and for your pleasure,” says Avianne Tan, a junior at NYU who likes to read novels and poetry. “It’s nice to have those special moments in doing things I like when life gets so busy around doing things I have to do.”
To fight off stress, Maddy Foley, a recent graduate of Kenyon College, streams rainfall meditation albums on Spotify. “If I’m feeling really stressed, I listen to one or two of those tracks and try to focus on breathing evenly and deeply.”
3. Electronics (laptops, phones, computer) that emit blue light
If you’re a late night texter or like to fall asleep with the TV on, you might have to change your night-time habits because this could be interfering with your sleep. Turning off your phone can also keep you from getting woken up by a text and help you fight the temptation to check your Facebook or Twitter.
“There is some research to suggest that blue light that’s emitted from laptops, TV screens, phones can really inhibit the melatonin production in our brain,” says Dr. Shariff. Melatonin is the chemical in the brain that helps set our internal clock. “The light from that can really send a signal to our brains, mistakenly, that ‘oh, it’s not that late, so it’s not bedtime yet.’” The blue light from these screens can delay our feelings of sleepiness, so turn them off about an hour before going to bed in order to successfully doze off.
“I take half a tab of Melatonin [when I can’t sleep]. It regulates your sleep cycle like a boss and it’s non-addictive,” says Maddy of Kenyon College. Because Melatonin is the hormone that controls sleep cycles, some people take Melatonin supplements. You may be able to find these supplements at health food stores, but it’s best to speak with your doctor about it first.
4. Food (caffeine, sugar)
The most obvious foods and drinks that keep you awake contain caffeine and sugar. Sugar can hype you up and caffeine keeps you alert and energized, which are the opposite of what you want to be when trying to catch some z’s. Although body reactions vary when it comes to sugar and caffeine, Dr. Shariff says that your last cup of coffee, or any type of caffeinated drink, should be six hours before lights out.
If you rely on caffeine to get you through the day, check out our article on how to get energy without caffeine.
If the only time you can exercise is in the evenings, try leaving at least two hours between your workout and your scheduled bedtime. According to Dr. Shariff, working out too close to bedtime can cause you to feel restless. Set aside two hours of transition time to wind down and relax your body and mind. After a hard workout, why not treat yourself to a nice, relaxing bath? Also, meditation or deep breathing and even tensing and relaxing different muscle groups can get your body in a good state for sleep.
“I find doing square breathing really helpful,” says Katie Naymon, a sophomore at John Hopkins University. “So, for example, I’ll inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, exhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 and repeat like 10 times. [It is] totally relaxing and I find it slows my heart rate and makes me super sleepy.”
6. Taking naps
After a late night of partying and maybe an early morning class the next day, sometimes it’s inevitable that we might fall into the nasty afternoon nap cycle. Although a couple of hours of shut-eye can restore your energy for the day, it can mess up your sleep-cycle by pushing your bedtime back and causing you to nap again the next day.
“I definitely recommend just trying to set aside time to get the sleep that you need at night so that you’re not feeling the urge to nap during the daytime,” says Dr. Shariff. It might be hard to fight off the urge to nap, but the cycle has to end somehow!
Your sleep environment plays a big part in your ability to fall asleep and the quality of sleep that you get. An uncomfortable temperature—too hot or too cold—can prevent you from falling asleep. According to Web MD, the ideal sleeping temperature for most people is 65 to 72 degrees.
Is your night-light too bright? According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, too much light delays our internal clock and keeps us up.
Another environmental factor is noise, which can interfere with your sleep for obvious reasons. In this case, white noise (noise made up of many frequencies at equal intensities) might be helpful, according to Discover Fit & Health. Sometimes it’s impossible to control environmental noise, so the constant static of white noise might actually help sooth you to sleep. There are white noise machines, but if those are too pricey, there are also white noise apps available for download. You could also invest in some earplugs if you’re dealing with a snoring roommate or rowdy hall mates.
The most important thing is to try to stick with a consistent schedule and bedtime routine. Having an hour or so, before bed, dedicated to relaxing your mind and body should help you get some well-deserved slumber. After all, every collegiette needs her beauty sleep!