Having trouble sleeping? Here are our tips for how to get a better night's rest.
Why do we need sleep?
Sleep problems can be a common experience for university students. It's a period of life that can be stressful, when you're juggling study alongside work, personal commitments, and/or social activities. This can impact the quantity and quality of our sleep.
Sleep is an essential recovery activity for all humans. As a university student, getting adequate sleep can be especially important and relevant given the benefits it has for our ability to:
- Learn and memorise information
- Make sound decisions
- Maintain mental and physical wellbeing.
What factors impact on sleep?
There are four main factors that influence sleep:
- Our sleep drive or sleep hunger. This is our need for sleep, and it builds up throughout the day. The longer we are awake, the greater our need for sleep. Having a greater sleep drive at bedtime helps us fall asleep more easily.
- Our biological clock or circadian rhythm. This is our body's clock that signals when it's time to wake up and fall asleep. Having consistency in our routine supports our body to regulate hormones so we feel awake during the daytime and sleepy at night.
- Our environment, which can be conducive or disruptive for sleep.
- Our mind, emotions, and body, which can impact our sleep quality. An active mind that is busy with thoughts and difficult emotions such as stress, anxiety, and sadness, signal to our bodies to be alert and awake, making it difficult to fall asleep. In contrast, a quiet mind and calm emotions tell our body that it's off-duty and that it's ok to relax and sleep.
Understanding these factors can point to specific changes we can make to improve our sleep.
Top tips to improve sleep
To improve our sleep, we can look at making changes to three aspects of our lives: our behaviours, our physiological arousal, and how we can better manage difficult thoughts and feelings.
Behaviours: What can we do differently?
To improve sleep drive:
- Avoid napping during the day. This reduces sleep hunger, making it difficult to fall asleep when you go to bed. Try to manage the urge to nap by going for a walk, calling a friend, or having a cold shower. If you cannot avoid it, limit the nap to 20 minutes.
- Limit your intake of caffeine and other stimulants. Coffee, black and green tea, energy drinks, chocolate and other stimulants like tobacco increase our arousal, reducing our need for sleep. Try not to consume these past midday.
- Exercise regularly. Exercising uses more of your energy store, increasing the need for sleep. We will feel more tired when it's time to go to bed and find it easier to fall asleep.
To set our biological clock:
- Go to bed and wake up at a consistent time each day, including weekends. This consistently signals to our body when it's time to sleep and wake. When we don't get a good night's sleep, it can be tempting to try and catch up by sleeping in or going to bed earlier. Try to avoid this as it can upset your biological clock and keep you stuck in a cycle of poor sleep.
- Eat consistent and regular meals at typical times. Our metabolism plays a role in setting our body clock. Try having breakfast in the morning, lunch at midday, and dinner not too late in the evening.
- Use light to signal when it is time to sleep and wake. Before bedtime, try to steer clear of artificial light, dim your house lights, and stop electronic use. In the morning, opening your curtains or turning on lights can help signal to the body that it's time to wake up.
- Avoid vigorous exercise 3 hours before your scheduled bedtime. Exercise increases our body temperature which signals to our body that it's not time to sleep yet. This can make it harder to feel tired and fall asleep.
To create a conducive environment for sleep:
- Ensure the temperature of your bedroom is not too hot or cold. 18 degrees Celsius is optimal.
- Make your bedroom a quiet place. Noise can interrupt sleep. If you cannot reduce it, using white-noise or earplugs can help to drown out other noise.
- Keep your bed as a place for sleep (and sex). As a university student, the bed can become a place for multiple activities such as eating or studying. Reserving the bed just for sleep re-trains our minds to associate bed with sleep, rather than stimulating or alerting activities. This encourages our bodies to feel relaxed and ready for sleep when in bed.
- Get out of bed/bedroom if you are cannot sleep after approx. 30 minutes. Persisting with trying to fall asleep when not feeling tired can develop an association between your bed, feelings of boredom or frustration, and being awake. To prevent this, get out of bed, go to a different room, and do something relaxing (e.g., mindfulness meditation exercise, listening to soothing music). When you feel sleepy, go back to bed and try to fall asleep again.
- Avoid watching the clock when trying to fall asleep. This can lead to feeling more frustrated and awake. Put your phone face-down, or turn your clock around to prevent repeatedly checking the time.
Physiological arousal: How can we calm our bodies?
- Implement a bedtime routine. In the 90 minutes before bedtime, do things that help your body wind down and know it's time to rest. This could be having a warm bath/shower, journalling, or reading quietly.
- Practise relaxation techniques. Throughout the day and particularly during stressful periods, our sympathetic nervous system is activated, telling our bodies to be alert and prepare to respond to challenges that come our way. This can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep. Slow, deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are two practices that can calm our sympathetic nervous system and signal our bodies to rest and relax, aiding sleep. These guided audio exercises can help you practise these skills.
Managing difficult thoughts and feelings that get in the way of sleep
- Practise letting go of difficult thoughts. As a university student, you might notice racing thoughts before bed about tomorrow's to-do list, worries about completing assignments or upcoming exams, or replaying conversations that didn't go well. Although this is normal, getting carried away by these thoughts can certainly make it hard to fall asleep. Mindfulness is an effective way to train our minds to observe these thoughts rather than get caught up with them. As you're laying in bed, bringing your attention back to your breath or body can be helpful.
- Postpone worry and set aside "worry time" earlier in the day. It is common for worries to show up when there are less distractions before sleep. Setting aside "worry time", a dedicated period of time during the day (e.g., 15 - 30 mins before dinner), to engage with your worries can be helpful. During the day, you can use an app like Worry Time to write down worries as they arise. When it's time to engage with your worries during your scheduled "worry time", see if you can write down solutions/options/ideas to address each worry. If there is no action within your control that you can take, decide to let the worry go for now. With this approach, when worries coming up again at bedtime, you can remind yourself, "I've already thought about this and have a plan", or "I can consider this again at the next worry time", to help yourself unhook from unhelpful worry.
- Reframe unhelpful thoughts about sleep. We can have particular beliefs about sleep such as, "I need a full 8 hours of sleep to function", or "I'm not getting enough sleep if I don't sleep through the night". It can be helpful to consider what thoughts and beliefs you hold about sleep, examine their validity, and if they are helping or hindering you from getting good enough sleep in the long run. Some examples of more helpful thoughts about sleep could be, "Everyone needs different amounts of sleep and this changes across days and stages of life", or "Maybe I won't function at 100% capacity, but I'll mostly be able to focus and get some things done".
What can I do next?
It can take several weeks of working on your sleep consistently before seeing any changes - be patient with yourself and the process! For more information and support, you can:
- Explore evidence-based information on sleep, sleep hygiene, and insomnia by the Centre for Clinical Interventions.
- Enrol in the 'Managing Insomnia Course' by This Way Up to learn effective, step-by-step strategies for managing chronic sleep difficulties.
If you are experiencing persistent sleep problems, it's important to book an appointment with a GP for a medical review. Speaking with a counsellor at CAPS can also help you develop an individualised plan to improve your sleep.
If you'd like more support, come along to one of our workshops or make an appointment for individual counselling.