This article was written by Sarah Hinstorff, former chair of the Youth Advisory Board.
Manage Stress: Sleep Well
Does this conversation about lack of sleep sound familiar?
“How’s it going?”
“How about you?”
It’s a conversation that gets repeated too often. In some places, it has become a badge of honor to work to the bone and sacrifice sleep. It is sometimes treated as a competition to see who slept the least. But sleeping less doesn’t necessarily mean working harder. Sleep is an investment in our quality of life.
As tweens and teens, sleep affects our health, mood, and ability to succeed. Stressful situations are easily managed when well-rested but can feel daunting when tired. Sleep is necessary to move new things learned into memory. So, it isn’t surprising that school and job performance declines with lack of sleep.
Sleep experts say that as adolescents, we require 9 to 10 hours of sleep each night. They add that most of us aren’t getting nearly enough sleep. Prioritizing sleep provides important benefits throughout the day.
The most common cause of sleepiness in teens is simple: we aren’t spending enough time sleeping in bed. This can be related to too much time spent on school work, gaming, or on our phones. But there are other reasons teens have trouble falling and staying asleep. One big one is stress. Worrying in bed can make it hard to fall asleep and can create wakefulness throughout the night. Stimulants like caffeine are another reason for poor sleep quality.
Although medical conditions are less common causes of sleepiness, they are important to consider. If you often have trouble sleeping or are unusually tired during the day, talk with your healthcare professional.
Teens are Night Owls
As teens, it’s normal to want to stay awake long after our parents go to sleep. There’s a biological reason for it. Biological clocks shift during puberty mainly because the brain’s sleep-timing systems switch on later at night. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that high schools have a later start time (no earlier than 8:30). Some schools have made that shift, but it is not yet a widespread practice. As a result, many teens must start their days before they are fully awake. This makes it extra important to get good, quality sleep.
Problems and Solutions
Caffeine and Stimulants
Possibly the easiest way to improve sleep is to address the use of stimulants. Caffeine is a real drug and should be used sparingly. It takes 6 to 8 hours for caffeine to get out of the body. It is found in coffee, tea, some sodas, chocolate, and at extremely high levels in energy drinks. Drinking caffeine in the afternoon and evening can make it more difficult to fall asleep and can result in exhaustion the next day. Caffeine is popular for a reason — it makes the body alert for a short time. But it can add to overall sleepiness. Other common stimulants are found in cold medicines or medications for Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. If you are taking medication, talk to your doctor if you experience difficulty sleeping.
The body requires time and energy to digest food. Large or spicy meals before bedtime can cause indigestion. A lot of liquid before bed can result in the need to use the bathroom frequently throughout the night. Have a small snack with a soothing drink like warm milk or herbal tea before bed to support healthy sleep. It seems simple, but consider how your diet impacts how the rest of your body functions.
The body’s natural rhythm (also known as it’s circadian rhythm or biological clock) regulates patterns of wakefulness and sleep. The body is designed to be awake during the day and asleep at night. Anything that interferes with that rhythm may interfere with sleep.
Artificial light (like light from computers, tablets, smartphones, and TVs) impacts this rhythm. It’s important to use light and darkness appropriately. Try raising the shades in the morning and dialing down the lights as bedtime nears. Digital screens give off light that stimulates the brain. Try setting phones and tablets to automatically switch onto night settings at least a couple of hours before bed.
The brain can still hear noises even during sleep. It works to try and make sense of these sounds, disturbing dream patterns. Try creating a quiet spot in which to sleep. If that is not possible consider white noise, soothing music or nature sounds. White noise can be achieved by turning on a fan or air conditioner. These sounds are calming and can cancel out other noises. It may take a while to find the sound that works best for you. Also be sure to turn off phone notifications and set devices to “Do Not Disturb” mode.
The bed must be kept as a place for sleep. Doing school work in bed makes the brain and body associate bed with anxiety about grades and tests. Texting or talking on the phone in bed associates the bed with excitement or social pressures. The brain doesn’t turn off during sleep. It’s just dialed down, like a computer in sleep mode. The brain is easily started up when thoughts bubble up to the surface. To sleep well, do all work — academic, emotional, social, or otherwise — somewhere other than the bed.
The first chance to be alone with thoughts is often at bedtime. Problems arise when the mind can’t seem to turn off. It’s not uncommon to use the bed as a place to do some good thinking. As teens, we can be so busy and lack the downtime to process thoughts and feelings. The bed becomes the place to deal with important issues — it becomes a workstation. We’re working too hard to fall asleep — and wake up in the middle of the night to complete the work. It helps to create a space to work through feelings before bedtime and away from the bed. Consider writing in a journal to give yourself space to process the day. Stress Management for Teens: Releasing Emotions offers other ideas to get things off of your mind.
If you find yourself waking up in the middle night to worry, get out of bed, leave the lights off, sit in a chair, and return to bed when you become really drowsy. If you stay in bed, anxiety tends to build, and it’s hard to get back to sleep.
Moving from activity to activity without winding down makes the mind continue to spin and the body gear up for a run or fight. That’s why it’s important to dial down activities at least an hour before bed. One way to do this is to take a warm shower or to listen to calming music before getting into bed.
“But I have a test tomorrow!” Sound familiar? For some students, keeping later hours is due to procrastination — not beginning to work intensely until there’s no other choice. Others are convinced that the extra hour (or three) of studying will make a difference. Unfortunately, fatigue the next day prevents good performance. It makes it hard to listen in class and can result in falling further behind. In most cases, a good night’s sleep is the best option! Keep this in mind when studying for a big test. Often an extra hour of sleep helps more than staying up late and re-reading notes one more time.
A Regular Sleep-Wake Cycle is a Key to Restful Sleep
The body likes patterns. So the more predictable sleep and wake times are, the more the body will expect to rest at certain times and be alert during others. Life does not always offer routines. But try to teach your body a healthy sleep-wake cycle. This means going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day.
While it may seem appealing to take long naps or sleep until noon on the weekend, this may actually interfere with sleep. Keep naps to thirty minutes or less. Sleep in only when it’s really needed. Don’t make either a habit. Pay attention to how your body responds.
Try Deep Breathing
Counting sheep is a strategy designed to distract swirling thoughts. Nice concept, but it’s known for being too repetitive and boring. It leaves lots of room for intrusive thoughts to creep back in. If you are really struggling to get a good night sleep, consider a technique that takes full advantage of controlled breathing and allows little room for intrusive thoughts. For this strategy to work, “deep breath” must be fully understood. It is not a rapid chest breath. It’s a deep, slow breath that starts with the diaphragm. First, it will look as if the belly is filling up like a balloon. Then the chest expands. To try it out for yourself, lay on your back and follow these steps.
- Breathe in deeply and slowly while counting to 4. Focus on both your breath and the counting.
- Say “hold” to yourself. Hold your breath and do nothing for two or three seconds.
- Exhale slowly while counting to 6.
- Your mind should be occupied with counting. And your body relaxes as the nervous system calms.
- Place your hands on your belly with your fingers interlaced loosely. If you are doing this correctly, your fingers will slowly move apart as you inhale. Notice as they come together when you exhale.
- Repeat this 4 or 5 times. Focus on nothing but breathing and counting. Allow yourself to drift into sleep.
This meditative breathing relaxes the body after a few cycles. Just as importantly, it requires full concentration. The mind is too preoccupied with breathing, counting, and noticing the movement of your fingers, to focus on anything else.
Invest in a Good Night Sleep
Commit to trying out some of these strategies for a two-week period and see how your body reacts! Your increased efficiency and focus, and improved ability to handle everyday stress will make up for all the time “wasted” taking care of yourself. The effort will be worth it once you experience the results.
Want to learn even more about successful sleep? More information is available from the National Sleep Foundation.