In the lead-up to exams, many conscientious students prioritise exam study over everything else. They may reduce their extra-curricular activities, cut back on exercise, skip meals, and sacrifice sleep in order to cram in a few extra hours of study. But is this the right approach?
Sleep deprivation has been associated with a range of negative consequences for our physical and mental health, such as weight gain, high blood pressure, weakened immune system, low sex drive, impaired balance, increased risk for diabetes and heart disease, changes in mood, memory issues, and difficulties with concentration, creativity, and problem-solving. To put it simply, without enough sleep, our brains can’t function optimally during the day.
You might think that all of these negative consequences take a long time to build up, and that the occasional night of poor sleep won’t do you too much harm. On the whole this is true. However, when it comes to the relationship between sleep and learning, research has found more immediate effects. In particular, experimental studies have found that sleeping after learning new information improves our ability to remember that information, compared to spending the equivalent period of time awake (for a scientific review, see: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0896627304005409).
A fascinating research study went further to investigate the relationship between sleep duration and learning in a group of university students (read the full study at: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0098628318816142). This study found that students who slept an average of 8 hours or more each night during the week of their final exams displayed significantly better exam performance (compared to students who slept less than 8 hours per night during exam week), even after controlling for assessment grades throughout the semester. The authors concluded that it’s not necessary to sacrifice sleep to increase study time. In fact, it appears to be better to study effectively during the day so as to allow ample sleep opportunity at night, which thus may improve daytime performance the following day.
How to sleep well during times of stress?
So you go to bed by 11pm in order to get your 8 hours by the time your alarm goes off at 7am, but you’re feeling wired, staring at the ceiling, with a million thoughts racing through your mind. What do you do?
You may find it helpful to set aside a “worry time” during the day, so that when these thoughts enter your mind at night you can simply tell yourself “I have thought about this today, and I can think about it again tomorrow, but now is the time for sleep”. If you want to try this technique, choose a specific time of day when you have 10 minutes to sit down and write down everything that is worrying you. Write them all down on paper, no matter how silly they sound. When your 10 minutes is up, look over your list and write a brief action plan that may help overcome any of these worries. Then, later, when these worries pop into your mind, you can remind yourself that you have addressed these worries for today and will think about them again during your next worry time. If you’re interested in this technique, check out the “Worry Time” smartphone app (https://au.reachout.com/tools-and-apps/reachout-worrytime).
It may sound silly, but trying to sleep can actually make it more difficult to fall asleep! So rather than putting a lot of pressure on yourself, focus on feeling comfortable in your bed, sensations of relaxation in your body, and letting the thoughts drift in and out of your mind. Sometimes if you switch your focus and try to stay awake, it actually makes sleep come easier.
And finally, recent research has found that regular use of a mindfulness app during the day can result in significant improvements in night-time sleep (for details, see: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2214782920301019). Fortunately there are a number of great mindfulness apps available in Australia - for example, Smiling Mind (https://www.smilingmind.com.au), Headspace (https://www.headspace.com/headspace-meditation-app), and Calm (https://www.calm.com) just to name a few.