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How Sleep Affects the Mental Health of College Students

Posted On March 26, 2015
March 26, 2015

It almost seems like a rite of passage: The Freshman 15. Packing on those additional 15 pounds of weight shortly after the fall semester starts your first year in college. No one is cooking meals or packing lunch, and junk food is another food group on the Food Pyramid. However, tipping the scales in the wrong direction isn’t the only issue that develops for freshmen as well as upperclassmen in school. Sleep deprivation can occur quite easily. So is it true? Can a college student’s mental health be affected by sleep?

Lack of Sleep’s Impact on College Student’s Mental Health

From tests to quizzes to research papers, it is a wonder that college students get any sleep at all. Most certainly they are short-changing their bodies of reaping the benefits of restorative sleep. In no way shape or form do college students get the recommended 7 to 9 hours to keep their minds and bodies healthy. On occasion, a night filled with tossing and turning is okay. But conditions such as insomnia, sleep apnea and other sleep disorders can also prevent them from getting a good night of sound sleep.

When not getting adequate sleep, college students lose the ability to concentrate, retain information and stay alert. Judgment can be impaired and reflexes can decrease. Unfortunately, lack of sleep can impact a college student’s mental health in far-reaching ways, specifically in the form of depression and anxiety.

Of course, the stress of college adds to the mix as an underlying cause of sleep deprivation. Published in the American Journal of Human Behavior, researchers determined that stress and sleep disturbances were a significant predictor of depressive symptoms in college students.

When to Seek Treatment?

When a college student is not getting enough sleep and shows the following signs and symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, it is time to intervene and have them seek professional help and treatment:

  • Inability to function, for example, get out of bed, take a shower or go to class.
  • Sleep to extremes, that is to say, too much or too little
  • Desire to crawl into bed and hide under the covers
  • Decrease in enjoyment of activities that they have liked in past
  • Shortness of breath
  • Racing thoughts
  • Panic attacks

Often times, depression and anxiety can disappear when proper sleep hygiene is followed. Some quick and easy tips to get back on the right track of getting consistent and restorative sleep are:

  • Establish a standard time to go to bed and wake up. Although hard for anyone, creating a bedtime routine is especially difficult for college students. But this tip will program a college student’s body to get the appropriate amount of sleep. And relaxation techniques can assist in starting to get him or her in the mood to go to sleep.
  • Don’t pull any all-nighters. Not sleeping for 24 hours or more, takes a toll on the body and mind. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time to study all night or complete a project but it really does more harm than good in terms of academic performance.
  • Create a bed haven, free of distractions, especially electronic gadgets. Although our electronic gadgets might help make life easier during daylight hours, they can wreak havoc on the quality of your sleep. Try turning all of your gadgets off an hour or even two before you go to sleep. Instead, make it your routine to relax with a good book or listen to soothing music.
  • Stay away from caffeinated beverages and alcohol at least 3 hours before bed time. Granted, caffeine will give people an immediate jolt of energy but it can also wreak havoc on your sleep habits. Difficulty falling asleep, waking up more often, decrease in deep sleep, and needing to visit the bathroom often are some of the downsides of caffeine usage.

Alcohol affects the amount of time a person spends in the deepest level of sleep, rapid eye movement (REM). This stage of sleep is the one in which we recharge our batteries and thus replenish energy storage.

  • Stay active and get plenty of exercise. Studies have demonstrated that consistent exercise can improve the quality of your sleep. People who walk, run, bike or perform any other form of physical activity tend to fall asleep faster and reap the benefits of deeper sleep. Of note, it is important to not exercise intensely 3 to 4 hours before putting your head down on the pillow.


If you are or have a college student who is plagued with the inability to sleep or think you have sleep apnea, please contact one of our medical concierges today at 1-855-863-4537 to schedule a consultation.

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