Sleep restores energy, fights physical and emotional illnesses, and strengthens memory. It is also necessary for normal motor and cognitive function. Unfortunately, college students get less sleep than they need. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends college-aged adults get at least seven hours of sleep per night, but most students get an average of six hours (or less). This lack of sleep can affect students' health, moods, safety, and academic performance.
If you're having trouble getting a good night's rest, this guide offers expert information and resources to help you obtain the optimal amount of sleep for college success.
Meet The Expert: Amanda Seavey, Ph.D.
Amanda Seavey, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and founder of Clarity Psychological Wellness in Raleigh, North Carolina. Clarity Psychological Wellness is an outpatient psychology clinic offering therapy to adults and adolescents in the greater triangle area. One of Dr. Seavey's specializations is in the treatment of insomnia and other sleep disorders utilizing evidence-based behavioral treatments. Dr. Seavey earned her master's and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and she completed her predoctoral internship at Duke University Medical Center. Dr. Seavey also has specialized training in acceptance and commitment therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. She is a member of the Society of Behavioral Sleep Medicine and Association for Contextual and Behavioral Science.
Quiz: Am I Getting Enough Sleep?
In recent years, researchers have increasingly studied sleep deprivation among college students. Websites such as PsychCentral dedicate themselves to studying topics such as college students and sleep. In fact, the site now offers a two-minute quiz -- based on frequency of sleep-related occurrences -- that can help you determine if you have a sleep disorder and if you are getting enough sleep.
If you do have a disorder, the following guide offers tips and solutions on how to combat it and improve your sleep quality. One important thing to remember: The quiz is not a professional assessment or diagnostic tool, so you should interpret its results as high-level, educated guesses as opposed to official diagnoses. If you want an official diagnosis, you should get in touch with a sleep doctor. We explain how to do so in the following sections.
Sleep Deprivation vs. Sleep Disorder
Sleep deprivation occurs when a person does not get enough total sleep. The exact amount of sleep a person needs can vary depending on age, lifestyle and health; but in general, the CDC recommends adults over 18 get at least seven hours of sleep a night for the body and brain to function properly. Sleep deprivation can be associated with a sleep disorder, or it can be a result of personal behaviors and/or external factors.
Daytime sleepiness, moodiness, reduced attention span, reduced energy/fatigue, delayed reactions, forgetfulness, reduced coordination, high blood pressure, muscle cramping, and lack of motivation
Voluntary behavior (such as staying up late to party, study, or watch TV), poor sleep hygiene (e.g., drinking coffee close to bedtime), alcohol consumption, school-related stress, overextending oneself/burnout, and illness
According to the Mayo Clinic, a sleep disorder refers to "changes in the way you sleep." Instead of just not getting enough sleep, something actively causes you not to get enough sleep. Sleep disorders often fall into different categories depending on how exactly they negatively impact your sleep.
Excessive daytime sleepiness, irregular breathing, restlessness during sleep, difficulty falling asleep, and difficulty driving
Anxiety, depression, alcohol, asthma, ulcers, genetics, work schedule (e.g., night shift), aging, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Sleep Deprivation in College Students
The average adult needs 7-9 hours of sleep a night, but according to the National Sleep Foundation, the specific amount varies depending on age, lifestyle, and health. If you find yourself waking up groggy or needing an extra two hours of sleep per night on weekends, you may not be getting enough good quality sleep during the week.
Consequences of chronic sleep deprivation for college students include:
Increased risk of depression and anxiety
Decreased athletic and academic performance
Sleep and Mental Health
How much sleep do college students need? As the previous section highlights, most adults need at least seven hours of sleep, although some need as many as nine. Individuals who do not meet this threshold often confront mental health issues, including heightened stress, depression, and/or anxiety.
About 15-20% of people with chronic insomnia develop severe depression, and research shows that people who suffer from depression often have abnormal sleep patterns.
Multiple studies have demonstrated a link between sleep quality and mood, meaning that sleeping well can enhance your well-being while poor sleep can lead to irritability and anxiety, which can lead to depression. About 15-20% of people with chronic insomnia develop severe depression, and research shows that people who suffer from depression often have abnormal sleep patterns. The link goes both ways.
According to a longitudinal study from Harvard, 65-90% of adults and 90% of children with depression suffered from some type of sleep issue. These disorders can be as simple as insomnia; however, as more than 70 varieties of sleep disorders exist, people suffering from depression could suffer from a wide range of sleep issues.
50% of adults suffering from generalized anxiety reported sleep issues.
Furthermore, according to the same study, somewhere between 69% and 99% of patients suffering from a bipolar manic episode experienced some sort of insomnia. During the corresponding bipolar depression periods, 23-78% of patients needed excessive sleep (along the lines of narcolepsy). Further, 50% of adults suffering from generalized anxiety reported sleep issues. Sleep issues are also common in adults suffering from PTSD.
Three of the most common sleep disorders are insomnia, narcolepsy, and sleep apnea. First, insomnia refers to frequent difficulty in both falling asleep and staying asleep. Second, people with narcolepsy tend to fall asleep too much, especially when they find themselves in relaxed surroundings. Finally, sleep apnea is a disorder in which your breathing stops and starts repeatedly and abnormally while you sleep.
Expert Tips for Getting Better Sleep
Getting a good night's rest can be tough when you are always on the go or have a full plate, so to speak. To help students suffering from sleep deprivation or sleep disorder, Dr. Amanda Seavey, licensed psychologist and founder of Clarify Psychological Wellness in Raleigh, North Carolina, offers the following recommendations:
Get Up at the Same Time
Set your morning alarm for the same time every day, even on weekends. Getting up at the same time every day will help regulate your circadian rhythm, improve how you feel first thing in the morning, and help you fall asleep at night. Consider this set wake-up time, rather than your bedtime, your anchor point for sleep. Be realistic and pick a time that feels feasible for you. Don't hit that snooze button when your alarm goes off, as you won't gain any more quality sleep or alertness. In fact, hitting snooze may just cause more morning grogginess. This tip is likely to have a greater impact on your sleep than anything else you try.
Get Out of Bed When Awake
Though it may sound somewhat counterintuitive, it is best to get out of bed when you aren't sleeping. When you lie awake at night trying to sleep, you associate wakefulness, stress, and discomfort with your bed. If you've ever experienced feeling sleepy until the moment you lie down, it's probably because you've been conditioned to be alert in bed. Designate your bed for sleep only; read, watch TV, or study somewhere else. If you wake up at night and aren't able to fall back asleep quickly, get out of bed and do something else for a while. However, avoid doing something productive like finishing homework; this will confuse your brain. Only go back to bed when you feel sleepy enough to fall back asleep. Getting out of bed when awake will help reverse the conditioned stress response to your bed and bedtime cues.
Sleep is an automatic process like digestion or breathing, so "trying" to sleep makes about as much sense as "trying" to digest or breathe. Because sleep is out of our direct control, ideas about clearing your mind or methods like counting sheep are unlikely to be helpful or successful. You may even feel more stressed as a result of trying to sleep. Mindfulness (i.e., being focused on the present moment without judgment) or just allowing your mind to wander are more likely to be useful. If you feel yourself falling into the trap of "trying" to sleep, get out of bed and reset.
Try not to take naps during the day. Not only will taking long naps make you feel groggier, it may make it more difficult for you to fall asleep at night. To sleep well at night, you need enough sleep pressure (i.e. the brain's need for sleep) to fall asleep. Think of this as a sleep piggy bank. When you are awake, you're collecting "money" or sleep pressure to spend when you want to sleep at night. When you take naps, you spend that "money" during the day, leaving you with less to spend at night. If you are struggling with fatigue during the day, instead of napping, consider going for a walk or increasing your exposure to sunlight. However, if you really feel the need to nap, keep it around 15-20 minutes, and schedule it between 12:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. in the afternoon so it has as little impact on nighttime sleep as possible.
Set Up a Daily Worry Time
If you find your mind tends to worry at night when you lie down to sleep or when you wake up in the middle of the night, you're not alone. It makes sense that worries or stressors pop up when we remove all the distractions present during the day. Try setting a scheduled time during the day to worry on purpose. Find a space where you can focus, set a timer for 15-30 minutes, and write down everything you are worried about. It's even better if you can find an actionable item for each worry (even if the action is "accept that it's something out of my control"). Then when worries pop up in bed at night, you can say mentally, "I already worried about that," or "I'll worry about that during my worry time tomorrow."
Be Careful about What you Drink
What you drink at night can impact sleep significantly. Many mistakenly believe that alcohol helps with sleep. However, research shows that while it may help with falling asleep, it also reduces REM sleep making sleep less restorative and more disrupted. Additionally, drinking too much of any liquid before bed may lead to interrupted sleep. Limit liquid intake two hours before bed to reduce how often you'll have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Limit caffeine intake to the first half of the day.
Get Rid of the Clock
Clock watching can ruin a whole night of restful sleep. If you've ever struggled to fall asleep or have woken up in the middle of the night, you know it's impossible not to calculate how long until the alarm goes off. Knowing what time it is will likely increase stress and make it more difficult to fall asleep. Cover the clock or move your phone to the other side of the room so you won't be tempted to check the time.
Give Yourself Some Downtime at the End of the Day
If you're someone who has difficulty sleeping, you may need to take time to wind down at the end of the day. Though sleep is an automatic process, it doesn't work like a light switch. Don't expect to work on stressful homework or stay out late and then be able to fall right to sleep when you lie down at night. You may need a little time to decompress from a stressful or stimulating day before getting into bed. Create a standard bedtime routine that allows your mind to transition from the busyness of the day to the stillness of the night.
Use Light to Your Advantage
Light plays a major role in regulating your circadian rhythm, which means you can use it to your advantage. Limit your blue light exposure (e.g., phone, tablet, laptop), and use dim lighting two hours before bed to signal to your circadian rhythm that bedtime is approaching. If you feel tired during the day or want to wake yourself up in the morning, use sunlight. Even on a cloudy day, getting outside or opening the curtains can help with energy during the day and sleep at night.
Optimize Your Sleep Environment
We sleep best in a cave-like environment, so keep your room dark and cool at night. Even a small amount of light can impact sleep, so use an eye mask if your room isn't dark enough. If it's too loud, try ear plugs or a sound machine. Temperature can also impact sleep significantly, especially when it's too warm. The recommended temperature for optimal sleep ranges from about 60-68 degrees. If you have pets, designate a separate space for them to sleep as they may wake you up or prevent deep sleep during the night.
Five Apps That Can Help You Sleep Better
What percentage of college students are sleep deprived? A larger percentage than you think. Fortunately, several apps can help you drift off to sleep through white noise, stories, or guided meditation. Below, we spotlight five apps that can become a part of your nightly bedtime routine.
Best known for its guided meditation, Headspace entered the mainstream in 2018, receiving coverage from outlets such as The New York Times and "The Ellen Degeneres Show." Nevertheless, the app also offers sleep stories and ambiance that can become a part of nightly evening and bedtime routines.
Calm offers many of the same services as Headspace, including guided meditation, sleep stories, and ambient background noise. Calm operates from a more goal-oriented standpoint than Headspace, as it asks users whether they want to improve sleep, reduce stress, or accomplish other goals the first time they open the app.
Pzizz creates "dreamscapes" and "psychoacoustics" that users listen to as they begin to drift off to sleep. The app features several celebrity endorsements and claims that it has cured certain cases of insomnia, even in extreme cases that involved PTSD.
White Noise Lite (the free version of the White Noise app) allows users to choose between a range of soundscapes for sleep, including thunderstorms, heavy rain, the rainforest, a dishwasher running, and brown noise. The full version removes advertisements and includes additional sounds and features.
The Sleep Cycle app tracks each stage of your sleep and tries to wake you up during light sleep, allowing for a more gradual awakening process. The app also provides plenty of data and reports so you can analyze and optimize your sleep.
College student sleep statistics suggest a great need for health and medical professionals who can address problems in the field. Different degrees can prepare you for sleep-related careers. Below, we spotlight five of the most common and relevant majors.
A clinical psychology degree focuses on psychopathology, which includes sleep disorders. It also incorporates knowledge from outside disciplines such as neuroscience, cognitive behavior, and ethics. Students learn how to conduct assessments, interventions, and provide treatment. Graduates will be trained to assess the causes of sleep deprivation or sleep disorders and offer effective solutions for a better night's rest.
A counseling degree provides students with a thorough understanding of the conceptual underpinnings and frameworks of counseling. These frameworks include counseling models, ethics, the factors affecting human behavior, and research and assessment. Advanced degrees in counseling allow students to hone in on a specific field or type of counseling. In general, counseling relates to sleep because improved mental health leads to better sleep.
A neuropsychology degree prepares students to administer a range of tests to the brain to help make diagnoses. An undergraduate degree in neuropsychology generally includes foundational knowledge in topics such as cognition, lifespan development, clinical psychology, and psychological disorders. Graduate programs are usually more specific, and neuropsychology students can often specialize in sleep at the graduate level.
A psychology degree offers a more general option to students not yet ready to commit to sleep science or a specialized field like neuropsychology. Students complete foundational coursework, learning about human behavior and various psychological fields, including social, clinical, and industrial/organizational psychology. Psychology students can focus their research more on sleep at the graduate level.
Incoming students who want to pursue a career in sleep should enroll in one of the best colleges for sleep and earn a degree in sleep science. Unlike psychology or counseling degrees, sleep science programs include less generalized coursework and focus right away on sleep disorders and relevant neuroscience and psychology-related topics. Most sleep science programs also include a significant research component.
Counselors provide assessment, diagnosis, and treatment for people with various emotional and mental health issues. When it comes to sleep deprivation and sleep disorders, counselors can determine the root cause of a patient's sleep issues and offer strategies to improve sleep quality and patterns.
Registered Polysomnographic Technologists manage and operate polysomnographic equipment, which administers sleep tests that help diagnose disorders in patients. These professionals work with sleep doctors by providing them with test results and analyzing their findings. They can work in private practice, hospitals, or other medical settings.
Respiratory therapists treat patients who experience difficulties with breathing. These difficulties can result from respiratory diseases like asthma, from premature births, or from old age or smoking. Respiratory therapists also treat patients who suffer from sleep apnea and experience difficulty breathing while sleeping.
Sleep health educators help community members learn about healthy practices and behaviors in terms of sleep. The job may include leading private or public workshops or sessions that discuss sleep hygiene or best practices for getting the best sleep.
Sleep technicians administer sleep studies -- often with the help of a RPGST -- that diagnose sleep issues and disorders in patients. These tests monitor bodily functions such as brainwaves, sleep patterns, and eye movements. Sleep technicians share this information with a physician, who then makes a diagnosis.
American Sleep Association
The ASA focuses on "improving public health by increasing awareness about the importance of sleep and the dangers of sleep disorders." To accomplish this mission, the organization aims to educate the public through conferences and its website.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
The NHLBI provides grants and training in addition to an annual conference and publications of original research. One of the organization's primary interests is "sleep deprivation and deficiency" as it relates to the heart, lungs, and blood.
National Sleep Foundation
This website provides resources to students suffering from sleep deprivation, including articles covering topics such as meditation and circadian rhythms.
Provided by the AASM, Sleep Education features articles about sleep disorders, allowing users to match their symptoms to a disorder.
Sleep Research Society
The Sleep Research Society aims to advance research in the field and publish those findings to a wide audience. It also operates a foundation that gives out awards to promising researchers.