Getting a Good Night's Sleep

Getting a good night’s sleep can be a natural way to end the day for some, while others find it to be an exercise in frustration.  Many students find themselves tossing and turning into the wee hours of the morning, which makes it much more difficult to focus the next day and can lead to being irritable or to experiencing a negative influence on one’s mood. Most adults need 7-8 hours of sleep per night but some can get by on as few as 5 whereas others need a full 10 to function at their best. 

While your body can function on fewer than your optimal number of hours of sleep, if you are consistently getting too few hours and spending significant time in bed where you are unable to sleep, you may want to try out some of these tips which have been shown to help people to sleep better. 

  • While a student life filled with exams, deadlines, and social obligations can make this a challenge, try to set a consistent time to go to sleep and to wake up.  Your body gets confused when your schedule varies significantly and will have trouble trying to figure out when it is supposed to be awake and when you are supposed to be asleep.
  • If you find yourself watching a clock and calculating how much sleep you are going to be able to get, you are likely increasing your anxiety, which will make it more difficult to sleep.  Turn clocks around so you can’t see them when you are trying to fall asleep. 
  • If you feel you have been in bed for 20 minutes and are still not falling asleep, get up and out of bed and go sit somewhere else to do a calming activity like reading or writing (not something activating like browsing websites online).  The idea is that you don’t want to associate your bed with being awake or anxious.  Only return to bed once you are feeling sleepy. 
  • For similar reasons, try to use your bed only for sleep and sex.  Try not to eat, study, or worry in bed or you can reinforce an association between bed and not sleeping. 
  • Avoid napping, especially in the late afternoon or for more than 30 minutes.  While it can feel really good at the time, sleep during the day makes it more likely that you will continue to have difficulty with sleeping at night.  Remember that if you hold off during the day and are feeling sleepier, you will be more likely to be able to fall asleep at night and to achieve a normal routine. 
  • Limit caffeine.  Sensitivity to caffeine varies from person to person, but if you are having trouble with sleep, try cutting back and particularly being careful not to have caffeine in the late afternoon or evening.
  • Many think an alcoholic beverage or “night cap” is a great sleep aid.  While alcohol can induce drowsiness initially, as it wears off it tends to disrupt sleep cycles and make sleep less refreshing than normal. 
  • Eating or exercising close to bed time can also disrupt sleep.  Exercise is physiologically arousing which can make it harder to fall asleep, and digestion slows when you are asleep which can lead to discomfort if you have recently eaten. 
  • Particularly in dorms, it can be hard to control the sound and light in your sleep environments.  Some find it helpful to generate “white noise” by running a fan or tuning a radio between stations as this can muffle external noises.  An eye mask and ear plugs can also be a great investment!

While these basic skills can dramatically improve sleep for some students, if you continue to struggle, you may want to seek out some additional support in evaluating your sleep at Counseling and Psychological Services.  Counselors can help you to identify some of the factors that may be creating barriers to getting good sleep and can work with you to help to overcome them. 
Lindsay Shortliffe, Psy.D.
Post-Doctoral Fellow
Counseling & Psychological Services


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