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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC students consider how their lack of sleep affects wellness and school work


DTH Photo Illustration. Students are having trouble finding a balance between sleep and work.

Sarah Scarborough has an alarm set for 7 a.m. She hits snooze until 9, then attends her online classes, Diet Coke in hand. It gets dark, but she’s not tired yet since she still has some pent up energy considering she’s not walking to classes these days. Motivation during the day has been low, so she has enough work to keep her occupied until she falls asleep at 2 or 3 a.m. Rinse and repeat.

It’s not an unusual schedule for a student this semester, but it goes against almost every one of the “baseline things” CAPS psychologist Anna Lock recommends to students when it comes to sleep hygiene. 

It’s familiar advice: don’t do work or use your phone in bed, avoid caffeine and alcohol late in the day and stay active. 

Although a college student struggling to maintain healthy sleeping habits is not unique to the pandemic, challenges like a lack of routine, being stuck in the house and struggles with mental health have notably impacted the sleeping habits of students like Scarborough over the past year. 

“It’s weird, I feel like I do less, but I still have less energy,” Nykolas Zollbrecht, a junior struggling with sleep, said. “I haven’t felt well-rested in a long time.”

In the National College Health Assessment conducted during the spring of 2020, UNC students were asked how many days per week they got enough sleep that they felt rested. Sixty percent of the students surveyed responded zero to two days. Forty-one percent reported getting less than seven hours of sleep per weeknight on average. 

Lock and Dean Blackburn, director of Student Wellness, pointed to sleep as foundational for student health and well-being. 

“Sleep is that thing that I always ask about first when I’m working with a student and wondering what may be underlying some of their current struggles,” Lock said, “[Lack of] sleep makes it harder for us to concentrate, it makes it harder for us to encode new information… it makes it harder for us to manage stress, so it can exacerbate anxiety and it can exacerbate depression.”

But it’s not always clear what constitutes healthy sleeping habits. Lock said for some people, five hours of sleep might be enough, while others need eleven. In terms of sleep schedules, some students prefer to work late at night and sleep into the afternoon. 

Lock said if this sort of schedule is consistent, it’s possible to get restful sleep, but noted that humans have a natural response to light – our mood and circadian rhythm can be thrown off by working in the dark. 

Jack Brownlee, a junior, struggled with that schedule after daylight saving time. He woke up late and saw sunlight for four hours before darkness would descend again; it was depressing, he said, and he started feeling lethargic and unproductive. 

“I don’t think people should measure their self-worth or their self-esteem to their productivity right now, which is the advice that I gave everyone except myself,” Brownlee said. He felt anxious about the amount of work he saw piling up to the point that he didn’t want to do it.

Brownlee wondered if he could improve his mental well-being through a physical change, namely, remedying his sleep schedule. 

He started keeping his blinds open and leaving his phone in another room, buying an alarm clock as a replacement. Then, he started setting his alarm clock in increments; three days set at 9:30 a.m., then two days at 9 a.m., and so on. 

Once he was consistently waking up at 7:30 a.m. and physically getting up by 8, he established a morning routine he takes pride in: read a chapter of something fun, eat breakfast and get ready by 10. 

Brownlee's new routine has led to desired improvements in his mental health. 

“Existing during the sunlight rather than during the night has definitely helped make me feel like a real human. Being able to get my work done by a reasonable hour – most days – has also helped a lot,” Brownlee said. 

For students with chronic sleep issues, though, other interventions may be necessary. 

Lock recommends that students who have been struggling to get enough restful sleep for several weeks to a month reach out to CAPS or Campus Health. 

If applicable, they may be referred to the Integrative Health Program, which offers non-pharmaceutical interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy. Students struggling with insomnia or struggling to rest without sleep aids like cough syrup or melatonin shouldn’t hesitate to reach out, she says.

“[Using sleep aids] doesn’t preclude continuing to explore other alternatives or better understanding why this thing works,” Blackburn said. 

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Both he and Lock said they understand students’ desire to address their own needs.

“The need for sleep and the desire for sleep can really be overwhelming,” Lock said. “It is so hard when you’re not getting good sleep, and it is so hard when anxiety kicks in when you’re trying to go to sleep and that’s getting in the way.”

At the end of the day -- literally -- students will continue to seek out and adopt the strategies that work for them.