Instead of falling asleep at 10 p.m., Daniel, a junior psychology major at Ithaca College, has just woken up. He was too tired to stay awake in the afternoon, but now he won’t be able to get back to sleep until 2 or 3 a.m. Because he won’t get enough sleep at night, tomorrow he’ll be tired again in the afternoon.
The Fountains at Ithaca College
College students are notorious for their unconventional sleep schedules. The transition to online classes during the Covid-19 pandemic has merged school and personal time, meaning even more students are having difficulty getting enough sleep at night and staying awake during the day. The Ithaca College Center for Health Promotion hosts the THRIVE @ IC Wellness Coaching program, which includes one-on-one sessions and group workshops for building resiliency to help students address these sleep difficulties and other health concerns. According to Program Director Nancy Reynolds, a Health Education Specialist and National Board-certified health and wellness coach, anyone can start taking steps today to improve their sleep cycle and overall wellness.
A good night’s sleep might be hard to get for some, experts agree, but it’s easy to define. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adults college-aged and up need seven to nine hours of sleep every night. Sleep is generally better without frequent awakenings and when you keep a consistent routine, waking up and going to bed at similar times every day.
Reynolds points out signs of a poor sleep schedule that may sound familiar to college students.
“Do you feel well-rested in the morning?” Reynolds asks. “What’s your fatigue level during the day? Because that’s another marker of if you’re not getting enough sleep or a good quality of sleep. You’re going to notice during the day that you’re feeling groggy, maybe you’re falling asleep in class, you’re having to take naps every day because you’re so tired.”
It’s a stereotype that college students choose to stay up past midnight and sleep into the afternoon, but many students like Daniel, who requested that his full name not be published, really do have difficulty getting up and staying awake.
According to Reynolds, various aspects of student culture contribute to unhealthy sleep schedules. When students spend time on phones and laptops late into the night, she noted, blue light from these devices prevents the brain from releasing sleep chemicals. Reynolds said that many students also struggle with time management, especially when they’re juggling a lot of responsibilities. That can force students to stay up late to complete all their tasks or assignments, she said. Reynolds also points to a strange element of college culture in which students “compete” to be the busiest or the most sleep deprived—which some students dub the “Sleep Olympics.”
The switch to online learning has further complicated student sleep problems, Reynolds said. Students face even more hours of screen time, and the line between schoolwork and rest of life is blurred. It’s not unusual for students to log in to a class on Zoom and see several classmates attending from their beds. Reynolds explained that taking online classes from the same room all day may be another reason students are struggling with sleep.
“We’re not getting variety in our day in terms of social connections and moving around to different environments—walking around campus, going to the library, hanging out in different students’ rooms,” she said. “We’re not getting the same amount of stimulation that our brains need to make our bodies ready for sleep at night.”
Along with lack of stimulation, Covid-19 has introduced new stressors, such as social, financial, and health-related worries, that may keep students up at night, Reynolds said. She noted that many people are coping with feelings of grief for those they have lost to Covid-19.
Reynolds said that sleep and mental health are strongly interconnected. Bad moods, low energy, and difficulty in focusing due to lack of sleep take a toll on mental health.
Reynolds explained that sleep cycles necessary to maintaining mental wellness can be interrupted for many reasons, one of which is substance use.
“Some students are self-medicating with cannabis,” she said, explaining how students use marijuana to help them fall asleep at night. “The downside is we know scientifically that THC and cannabis prevent us from going into REM sleep, which is dream sleep. If you don’t get dream sleep on a continual basis, your mood may suffer.”
Struggling with mental health can cause poor sleep, and in turn poor sleep can make it difficult to focus on one’s mental health, Reynolds said. Anxiety specifically feeds into this cycle, as racing thoughts keep people awake, and the resulting poor sleep causes them to feel like they can’t handle challenges in their lives, she added.
Daniel agreed that the two were related, saying, “When my sleep schedule is off, I’m often anxious about class work, since I don’t have time or energy to get it done.”
It can seem like an endless cycle. At Wellness Coaching, Reynolds focuses on finding a first step that can help students move forward. This may be anything from mindfulness to a new exercise routine.
“You have to go at it from both aspects—improving the sleep and reducing anxiety,” Reynolds explained.
All aspects of health are related, which Wellness Coaching illustrates through a “Resilience Pyramid” graphic. The bottom building blocks of the pyramid are eating well, “balancing substance use,” moving your body, and getting good sleep. All of these elements are essential for building up personal health and moving up to higher goals on the pyramid such as connecting with others and adopting a growth mindset.
In a first visit with Wellness Coaching, students typically assess their own strengths and challenges on the pyramid. They can then start finding solutions. Wellness Coaching is currently available virtually at no cost for all Ithaca College students. Reynolds encourages students to reach out, even if they only need assistance for one session. (Email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.)
Reynolds said there are several first steps that a student can take today to getting their sleep cycle back on track. For example, she said, take the time to go for a walk outside, allow yourself breaks between classes, and stay connected with the important people in your life. Be mindful of activities that may be disrupting your sleep cycle, such as upsetting media, substance use, and long naps, Reynolds advised. She also recommends establishing a nightly wind-down routine, a period of 30 to 60 minutes before bed when you shut off your devices and do something quiet like stretching or listening to a podcast.
As the semester nears an end, Daniel is feeling hopeful. With three of his five classes now meeting in person, he’s having less difficulty separating work and leisure environments. He’s also monitoring his afternoon habits, trying to avoid too-long naps. Daniel’s latest report: the sleep cycle is getting back on track.
—By Lorelei Horrell
Lorelei Horrell, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a second year Ithaca College student with a Writing major and double minor in Sociology and English.