CSU students don’t sleep enough, have too much stress

Emma Iannacone

Video by Emma Iannacone

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With heavy dark bags hanging under their eyes and a double-shot coffee in hand,  tired Colorado State University students wander around campus like zombies in preparation for another finals week. But the sweet relief of catching up on sleep over fall break shows something is wrong with college sleeping habits.

A new study by the American College Health Association showed that less than half of college students reported getting enough sleep to feel rested in a 3-5 day period, something students may find normal, but experts find troubling.

Janelle Patrias, manager of mental health initiatives at CSU, said students often don’t notice how large of an impact their lack of sleep has on them. 

“Sleep is really one of those (factors) that students don’t necessarily recognize is a struggle for them, but when they pause long enough to think about how it impacts their academics, it absolutely is,” Patrias said.

Despite numerous studies re-enforcing the importance of quality rest, sleep can still be a rare treat for CSU students, especially veterans.

Dr. Aaron Eakman works with veterans in the New Start for Student Veterans Program within the Department of Occupational Therapy’s Center for Community Partnerships. He is also the director for the Restoring Effective Sleep Tranquility program, which offers “group-based and individualized sleep improvement education and support to qualifying post-9/11 student veterans.” It aims to improve veterans sleep quality and mental health through cognitive behavioral therapy.

Many of the student veterans Eakman works with have post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety or other forms of mental illnesses causing trouble in their sleep patterns. Through the REST program, Eakman has found that better sleep can lead to better mental health.

“When we’ve had opportunities to work with them and their sleep has improved because of the program, we see decreases in their depression, in their stress and in their anxiety,” Eakman said.

Patrias describes the relationship between sleep and stress as bi-directional, meaning they feed off of each other. As one’s stress increases, their sleep quality decreases, and vice versa.

Rates of anxiety and inadequate sleep are increasing at CSU, according to Patrias. Across the nation, 44.9 percent of students reported having more than average stress levels in the past 12 months.

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“What we are starting to recognize is that poor sleep is actually fueling stress and anxiety,” Patrias said.  

Sleep is the third most common factor impacting student’s academic performance, following only anxiety and stress, according to the National College of Health Assessment spring 2018 study.

The student veterans in the REST program often have chronic insomnia, Eakman said, which led him to wonder if problems sleeping is a commonality among non-veteran students.

He conducted a survey in spring 2018 of nearly 700 CSU students, and more than half indicated they weren’t getting enough sleep.

“We found that about a third (of people) were getting less than six and a half hours of sleep per night,” Eakman said.

About 40 percent of those who completed the survey would test positive for clinically significant chronic insomnia, a staggering difference compared to the 5.5 percent of college students who were diagnosed with insomnia within the last 12 months, according to the 2018 study by the National College of Health Assessment

This furthers Patrias’ assessment that students don’t know they have serious problems sleeping.

“There may be a response bias in this sample such that those with sleep difficulties may have been more likely to complete the survey than those who did not,” Eakman wrote in an email to The Collegian.

While there could be other factors contributing to the high percentage of students qualifying for insomnia, such as sleep apnea, Eakman said 40 percent is a high prevalence rate.

Chronic insomnia is classified as having recurring problems sleeping for at least three months and is classified as a major health issue in the United States, according to the American College of Physicians.

Sleep problems can include difficulty falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night or waking up too early.

“That can impact school work, it can impact people’s emotional regulations, it can impact their work—if they have work outside of school—and social relationships as well,” Eakman said.

While we know how inadequate rest can impact students’ health and academics, it’s unclear what’s causing the sleep problem college campuses are facing.

One thing that could be contributing to sleep problems in students is the blue light emitted from electronics, such as phones and laptops, Eakman said. On the other side of campus, Patrias sees this problem too.

“What we hear often times is (students) are on their devices until right before they fall asleep and they’re having a hard time falling asleep,” Patrias said.

Patrias said the best recommendation is to allow an hour before sleep away from screens and electronics, but that can be hard for students with homework and social media distractions.

“I’d say it’s definitely a problem for the majority of college students, just because we’re in that age of always having to be connected, there’s a certain fear of missing out,” said Byron Pritchard, a sophomore studying math.

Interactive use of cell phones before bed can lessen the amount of time asleep and the quality of sleep, causing them to feel fatigued the next day. Even passive use (watching television, listening to music), can extend the time people are awake.

Pritchard ends his night by playing “League of Legends” and other video games on his computer, but said he’s taken precautions against the effects of blue light.

Pritchard bought blue light blocking glasses and uses f.lux, a software program that changes the color of screens to minimize the effects of electronic use before bed.

Eakman’s preliminary survey doesn’t confirm that blue light or any specific factor is causing the prevalence of insomnia on campus, but he said “sleep hygiene” could be it.

Sleep hygiene is the idea of practicing daytime activities, such as staying active, that will promote good sleep in the evening, according to Eakman. Self-help resources are available on the RESTweb website.

Other steps students can take to improve their sleep include going to bed early, getting out of bed if you’re having trouble sleeping, staying out of bed for studying or other activities, limiting naps and caffeine and avoid sleeping in on the weekends.

Emma Iannacone can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @EmmaIannacone.