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Mental Health

The Psychology Behind the ‘All-Nighter’ & Tips to Survive One This Finals Season

The time has come. Finals season is upon us. And with a great number of finals comes a great number of all-nighters. Whether you’re up late studying for an exam tomorrow or happen to be finishing up your last paper of the semester, all-nighters are inevitable for the average college student at some point in their academic career. But what exactly is the psychological impact of an all-nighter? What does an all-nighter do to our bodies? We all know they’re “technically” unhealthy for us, but what is its exact impact and how do we survive one if we find it's our only option? Here’s what you need to know.

All-nighters impact your sleep and, more specifically, your circadian rhythm

It’s a given that all-nighters impact your sleep, but it’s important to understand why and how interference with your circadian rhythm can noticeably impact other aspects of how your body functions. For instance, without having a proper amount of sleep (roughly eight hours every night), your daily performance can mimic that of someone who is drunk or has a blood alcohol concentration of 0.05 to 0.1 percent. This can lead to negative effects like impaired judgment and poor perception or comprehension of given situations, among others. An all-nighter can significantly disrupt your circadian rhythm — your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle rhythm that repeats every 24 hours — making it even harder for you to fall asleep at a decent hour the next day. This is because your brain won’t know when it’s really time to go to bed, and if you pull enough all-nighters, this can be extremely detrimental over time.

Impacting memories and memorization

If you’re studying all night for an exam the next day, chances are this will have some negative consequences. When you’re missing sleep, your brain isn’t able to recollect memories and information in the same way, since it lacks the energy necessary to produce the memories of an event or concept. More specifically, your brain makes memories through a three-step process as follows: 1) acquisition, 2) consolidation, and 3) recall. Sleep is most important in the consolidation portion of this process, meaning your subconscious is responsible for ultimately storing memories for you to recall later. When you skip sleep to try and memorize concepts for an exam, you aren’t really giving your body the time to store that information, making it harder to recall when you need it for a grade later. This is the same when you’re trying to learn something new — if you don’t have deep sleep (aka slow-wave sleep), you deny your brain the opportunity to store new material as well, making it harder for you to really comprehend anything you spent the night on the next day or later on in the future.

Increased risk for a laundry list of conditions

When you deprive your body of sleep repeatedly, you put yourself at risk for a multitude of conditions that can significantly impact your life as you get older. These include high blood pressure, increased stress, diabetes, obesity, depression, slowed metabolism, and even heart attacks and heart disease. This goes to show how crucial it is to find ways of minimizing the need for an all-nighter, especially when finals are around.

So let’s say you failed at time-managing this week and now you have to finish a paper in one night again. How do you survive it while taking the best precautions possible?

First, before starting your all-nighter, make sure you plan out the following night. Set a time to go to sleep (preferably earlier than usual) to help make up for the sleep you will lose during your all-nighter. After that, write down a to-do list with things you need to accomplish the next day. Since an all-nighter can impact your ability to remember things you need to get done, it will be helpful to have a list ready to go the next day to make sure you don’t neglect any additional responsibilities.

Now it’s time to go actually get into the all-nighter. When you’re doing your work, it’s important to keep the lights on and maybe have a cup of coffee by your side. When your environment is dark and cold, it’s going to be easier for your body to produce melatonin, which is activated to help you sleep. This means it’ll make it harder for you to stay up and finish your work and easier for you to fall asleep instead. If you want a fair shot at finishing your work more smoothly, then this is the way to go.

The next day, make sure you treat your mind and body right and replenish them. This can be done by making healthier eating choices, drinking plenty of water, and even taking time out of the day to take a short nap if you can. Since you deprived your mind and body of sleep the night before, you need to make sure you’re being extra gentle and kind with yourself the following day. When exams and papers are finally out of the way, also take some time to better your schedule and time management so that you can actively avoid another all-nighter if possible. 

Best of luck with your finals!

Caroline Val

Columbia Barnard '24

Caroline is a first-year at Barnard hoping to major in Psychology and English with a concentration in Film Studies. When not advocating for mental health awareness, she's also extremely involved in all things theatre, film, and writing (especially poetry). She can be reached on Instagram @cxrol.v!
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