Ask a Psychologist: How important is sleep?


Ask A Psychologist is a continuing series of advice and discussion from Dr. Chaz Mailey, psychologist at K-State Counseling Services, geared towards student-based questions and situations.

Midterm exams are right around the corner or are even already happening for many students. What impact does lack of sleep have on students and their academics?

Mailey: “Sleep is actually one of the most critical of our needs as humans. When you don’t sleep, you become careless and your motor skills aren’t nearly as good. It’s actually one of the most dangerous things to do while driving, is driving without enough sleep. Well, maybe not as much as drinking and driving of course, but lack of sleep is actually up there as one of the major causes of accidents.

As far as how it impacts you as a student, you can’t retain information without sleep; it impacts attention and concentration. Part of what happens while you’re sleeping is your body is replaying things that happen in your mind and you need to go through all the different cycles. Without sleep, your mind isn’t able to remember all of the different things that are taking place throughout the day and things that you’re learning, so you aren’t getting any new information coming in.

So ultimately, it’s going to be quite detrimental to you in the long term if you’re trying to be successful as a student.”

Is there a point where students should stop studying to get enough sleep?

Mailey: “I think one of the challenges is figuring out what time of day you have the most energy, and at that time it’s probably most ideal for you to try to get your studying done. The way the light and dark cycle works, you want to sleep at night. When you’ve gone through a long day – dealing with people, going to classes, trying to retain information, eating – you’re wearing yourself out. The mind isn’t a muscle, but it is similar, and it’s just going to run out of energy.

One of the things I would encourage people (to do) is to consider changing your cycle – going to bed a little earlier and seeing what it’s like getting up a little earlier. Generally they say six to eight hours of sleep, and in some way it does vary from person to person. The thing is if you don’t have class at 10 a.m. and that’s your ideal time to study, instead of using that break to watch Netflix or take a nap, use that time to get work done so you can go to bed earlier.”

What’s your advice for someone who generally has trouble sleeping or struggles getting to sleep because they’re thinking about that big test the next day?

Mailey: “A few things could help. One of the things I often come across is people are keeping a mental task list, thinking of all the things they have to do. Write it down somewhere. There are a number of phone applications where you can create a task list – where you can see it and it’s not in your head, and this decreases the likelihood that you’re going to forget it.

Also, just reminding yourself that staying up is probably not going to be helpful for that exam, which might be easier said than done.

One of the things that some people do to fall asleep is play white noise in the background. There are numerous apps that you can download for your phone where it’s like a mindfulness, relaxation kind of thing, where you focus on the person’s voice or the music and direct your attention away from your stress and tension.

Develop a routine around sleep, thinking of it as a procedure where you’re starting to wind down. Pick a time that you would ideally like to get to bed and then start that routine maybe an hour ahead of time. Put down that textbook, limit watching TV, which can be excitable for the mind and even cause problems with the light.

One of the problems people have is they use their phone while they’re trying to sleep, which isn’t helpful because that bright light is too stimulating. Lowering the lights in your house can also help.

Having a routine you go through, such as brushing your teeth or washing your face, are all reminders that it’s time to go to sleep.

Also, preserve the bed for sleep – don’t do homework in bed or hangout. If your body associates the bed with other things than sleep, it’s going to make it harder to fall asleep.

Another thing is to avoid alcohol, as it doesn’t allow your body to get into the deep levels of sleep and if you’re drinking excessively it can affect your sleep for several days.

When it comes to exam week, just be prepared; don’t cram and think ahead. Keep a consistent sleep schedule and you’ll be ready.”

You can send in your own topics or specific questions for future Ask A Psychologist columns through the Collegian’s social media pages, or email with your thoughts.