Sleep and Stress
Learn why stress is keeping you up at night and how to reclaim your sleep.
Sleep plays an important role in our overall well being. If we don’t get enough restorative sleep, our physical and mental health suffers. Sleep is especially vital to the developing brains of children, teenagers, and young adults. According to a National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded study, a good night’s sleep strengthens memories collected throughout the day, bolsters creativity, and helps prepare the brain to learn.
How much sleep do students need? Well, it depends, says Dr. Peter Bailey, a family physician and expert contributor for Test Prep Insight, a test prep company that helps students prepare for exams like the MCAT and USMLE. “It is completely subjective and dependent on the individual,” he says. “That said, restorative sleep is critically important for students’ development, and children/young adults should get at least 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.”
Restorative sleep occurs when a person completes all five stages of sleep, including REM (rapid eye movement) sleep (when we usually dream) and deep sleep. These are the two stages of sleep when the body and brain rejuvenate, muscle growth and tissue repair occur, and our minds become better equipped to absorb information.
Students’ sleep needs, and the challenges they face in getting adequate sleep, is largely dependent on their age.
As a child grows from a toddler into school-age and middle school, they gradually sleep less at night. But the quality of their sleep remains crucial to their development.
Preschoolers, age 3 to 5 years: 10-13 hours.
Most preschool kids nap once a day. By the time they reach school age, around age 5, they tend to drop their daytime nap. When they do, they will need an extra hour of sleep at night so bedtime will need to be adjusted accordingly.
Elementary schoolers, age 6 to 12 years: 9-12 hours.
Elementary-age students grow considerably during this time and become much more active, and they need more sleep than the average adult. But they will likely sleep less than they did as preschoolers.
Middle schoolers, age 13-14: 8-10 hours.
By the time kids reach middle school, they only need about 8-10 hours at night. But many aren’t getting that much sleep, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Among middle schoolers, 57.8% said they didn’t get enough sleep on school nights, and nearly 12% said they are sleeping less than 6 hours at night.
There are several factors that can hinder sleep in young children.
Nightmares and night terrors: Roughly 10%-50% of children 3-6 years of age experience nightmares that wake them up. The dreams may feel frightfully real, making children afraid to fall back to sleep. Night terrors are like nightmares but more frightening. During night terrors children may act out and scream or become agitated. They often wake up frightened but don’t remember why they are scared.
Sleepwalking and sleep talking: Sleepwalking often occurs in children between the ages of 5 and 12, and, like sleep talking, usually goes away by the time they reach adolescence. Both aren’t dangerous, but they are more likely to occur when a child is sleep deprived.
Anxiety/stress: Stress can have the same effect on children’s sleep as it does an adult’s. “We [adults] worry about jobs, about health, about our social lives, etc. Our children and young adolescents are also affected the same way” says Dr. Ava Williams, a primary care doctor at Doctor Spring. “This can all cause worry that prevents us from relaxing at night before bedtime.”
Technology: Kids spend a lot of time staring at the screens of TV, tablets, smart phone screens, and other electronic devices. But too much screen time can prevent sleep because it “stimulates the brain, damaging the natural internal circadian rhythm that regulates sleep patterns,” says Dr. Eng Cern, an ear, nose and throat surgeon in Singapore specializing in sleep conditions.
Too many activities: Rushing kids to sports and after-school programs, and keeping up with homework can lead to late nights which can throw sleep schedules out of whack.
“Parents should be aware that their children’s sleep plays a major role in their mental health and overall well being,” Dr. Cern says. Which means they should take an active role in controlling situations that interfere with a good night’s sleep. Some ways parents can improve the chances their young children sleep well include:
Create good sleep hygiene.
Children’s bedrooms should be conducive to sleep, Dr. Cern says. “Their rooms must be clutter-free and comfortable to ensure that their sleep will not be interrupted.” Dim night lights are fine for little ones afraid of the dark, but the room should be otherwise dark. Use a sound machine to block out outside noises and set the thermostat to a comfortably cool temperature, typically a few degrees cooler than what it’s set at during the day.
Establish a nighttime routine.
Going to bed and waking up at set times helps get children into a habit of healthy sleep. It also helps strengthen their internal circadian clocks so that they feel sleepy at night when it’s time to go to bed and are easier to wake up in the morning.
“For young kids, you should strictly limit their screen time,” Dr. Williams suggests. Create media boundaries by limiting screen time to one or two hours a day, prohibiting the use of technology while sitting in bed, and establishing a “media curfew” that calls for the unplugging of all electronic devices at least 2 hours before bedtime.
By the time kids reach high school age, they should be getting 8-10 hours of sleep at night, especially on school nights. However, nearly three-fourths do not, according to the CDC report.
Teens who are deprived of sleep are at risk of suffering a host of problems including inability to concentrate, poor grades, anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide. It also increases the risk of drowsy-driving incidents. Driving while sleepy slows down reaction time, reduces road attention, and hampers the ability to make good driving decisions, which puts them at risk for serious injuries and death. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM), driving after being awake for 24 hours is comparable to driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.10, higher than the legal intoxication limit of 0.08.
Sleep deprivation can also make the brain more active, which makes it more difficult to fall asleep, which contributes to a vicious cycle that only deepens teens’ sleep debt.
There are many contributors that interfere with sleep in teens:
Sleep-phase delay: Teenagers are notorious for staying up late and sleeping in. Turns out, older teens are naturally inclined to do so, according to Stanford University researchers. They discovered that older teens transition to sleepiness later in the evening than adults, children, and younger adolescents. In fact, teens become more alert in the evening which makes them go to sleep later and wake up later. Since sleeping in on school days isn’t an option, teens are at greater risk for sleep deprivation.
Anxiety/stress: Symptoms of anxiety disorder often emerge during the teen years, which can make it difficult for them to fall asleep and stay asleep. Teens may also stress more about grades and getting into college.
Hectic schedules: As teens get older, their schedules often get more cramped with extracurricular activities such as sports practices, clubs, and social outings. Their homework load also increases. Making time to finish the work can have them turning to caffeine or sports drinks so they can burn the midnight oil.
Technology: More and more often, schools rely on computers and tablets, and few students are without their smartphones. Many also spend hours a day playing video games. The blue light that is emitted from electronic devices cues the brain to stay alert, which can delay sleep.
While it is impossible to rewire an older teen’s natural inclination to stay awake later at night, there are some strategies that can help promote sleep at a reasonable hour:
Avoid stimulants later in the day.
Caffeinated beverages and sports drinks may help them stay alert for exam cram sessions, but they should be avoided at least four hours before bedtime or else they’ll interfere with falling asleep.
Establish a routine.
Everyone benefits from a routine, including older teens. Establish a schedule that involves a regular time for homework, dinner, and bedtime, taking into account any extracurricular activities that may interfere with the schedule.
Improve sleep hygiene.
Make bedtime conducive to sleep. Have them unplug from electronic devices at least 30 minutes before bedtime to help the mind wind down, and encourage reading in bed instead. And remember that heavy dinners shortly before bedtime can delay sleep.
Take advantage of sleep-in days.
Keeping in mind that your older teen is programmed to stay up later, allow them to sleep in on weekends and holidays, if needed.
College students need at least 7 hours of sleep at night, but most, on average, are lucky to get at least 6, thanks to an overload of homework, jobs, and social activities. A sleep deficit can make you less sensitive to insulin, which can lead to weight gain (translation: The Freshman 15). It can also suppress the immune system leaving you susceptible to colds and flu, and send your anxiety over the top. This, in turn, can decrease your athletic performance, put you at risk for diving accidents due to fatigue, and lower your GPA.
There are plenty of factors that adversely affect college-aged students’ sleep:
Anxiety/stress: As students reach the college level, their stress level increases as well. There’s plenty to worry about. Not only are grades a concern (or should be), some students become overwhelmed juggling classes, homework, extracurricular activities, jobs, and social events.
More schoolwork: College-level courses demand more than high school classes, which means students may be forced to stay up later or wake up earlier to complete schoolwork, or even pull an all-nighter.
Alcohol consumption: Even if you’re not living in National Lampoon’s Animal House, chances are you will imbibe during your college career. According to a national survey, almost 55% of full-time college students ages 18-22 consumed alcohol in the past month. But alcohol can wreak havoc with sleep, especially if you drink too much or too close to bedtime. Sure, having a few drinks can make you pass out asleep, but you’ll be missing a healthy dose of the REM sleep and deep sleep to wake feeling refreshed. Plus, you might wake with a nasty hangover if you overindulge.
Noisy roommates: Roommates can keep you company, but they can also sabotage your sleep by playing music too loudly at night or keeping lights on to study while you’re trying to sleep.
While getting a good night’s sleep may seem difficult for college students, it’s not impossible. Here are some sleep tips for college students:
Get more active during the day.
“I think one of the most important factors around sleep that doesn’t get enough attention is the connection between physical exercise and sleep,” Dr. Bailey says. “Studies show that engaging in just 30 minutes of aerobic activity per day can increase the amount of slow wave sleep, also known as deep sleep, by up to 31%.” But, don’t exercise too close to bedtime. The “feel good” endorphins released during exercise can prevent you from falling asleep.
Improve your sleep hygiene.
Create an environment in your bedroom that’s conducive to sleep by splurging on a good set of sheets, a new mattress, or a mattress topper. Block out any distracting light with blackout shades or a sleep mask. Use a sound machine to block out noisy neighbors or roommates. And practice relaxation exercises or meditate before bedtime to stave off any stress or anxiety. Also, try not to study in bed, reserving it your bed for sleep and sex only.
Establish a routine.
Getting into a regular bedtime and wake time routine keeps your circadian rhythm in check. You’ll begin to feel sleepy at bedtime and awaken on time in the mornings feeling refreshed. Be sure to stick to the schedule even on weekends, and sleep in the morning after late-night social engagements so you don’t deprive yourself of needed sleep.
Limit alcohol and nicotine.
Be sure to cut off alcohol consumption a few hours before bedtime so it doesn’t affect your REM sleep or deep sleep. You’ll also want to stub out cigarettes a few hours before bedtime as well. Nicotine is a stimulant and will keep you up at night if you smoke too close to bedtime.
Strike a deal with roommates.
Work together so that both of you get quality sleep. Coordinate alarms, use a flashlight to study when the other is sleeping, and set a curfew for guests and loud music.
Sleep quality and quantity are important for people of all ages, but it is especially important for students. Good sleep strengthens memories, improves creativity, and aids in critical thinking — all important aspects of learning. If you or your child are having difficulty sleeping, practice some strategies for improved sleep. “If [difficulty sleeping] persists for a long period of time or gets worse, consult with a professional,” Dr. Williams suggests. “Insomnia can get worse if not addressed immediately because it becomes a vicious cycle.”
Learn why stress is keeping you up at night and how to reclaim your sleep.
If you're struggling to fall asleep, learn about eight natural sleep aids that might be able to help.