During the Easter break we all probably had disrupted sleep patterns, perhaps because we’ve holidayed in an unfamiliar place or simply because we’ve stayed up much later than normal. As we begin the final term of the year, one in which many of our girls will be studying for, and taking, exams, it seems timely to reflect on the importance of sleep.
A wide-ranging survey by The Sleep Council discovered that a good night’s sleep is the first thing to suffer in the run-up to exams. In the month leading up to exams, the number of teenagers who have just five to six hours sleep a night doubles from 10% to 20%.
Some 83% of teenagers admit their sleep is affected by worry and stress over exams with 18% saying they struggle to fall asleep, 28% waking up more frequently, 28% waking earlier and 10% affected by all three symptoms.
More than a third (34%) say they revise for 8 -10 hours a week while more than one in 10 (11%) spend in excess of 14 hours a week doing so. A spokeswoman commented: “The next few weeks will see teenagers across Britain studying for school exams and while we are aware that the exam period itself has a major impact on sleeping habits, we wanted to take a closer look at the effect the revision run-up period has on sleep.Our research shows that a worryingly high number of teenagers are not getting as much sleep as they need to function and perform at their best in the build up to exams. They are sacrificing sleep to study when in fact they might be more mentally alert cramming in extra sleep rather than more revision”.
Academic research studies have backed up this point. For example, this one looking at the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive and physical performance in university students.
Many experts believe technology is responsible for sleep deficits in at least 70% of adolescents in the UK. Adolescents will go online to entertain themselves, connect via social media and play games or chat with their equally-awake friends. The bright screens of phones and gadgets disturb the circadian rhythms that regulate the sleep cycle and lead to emotional and cognitive arousal.
It has also been suggested that teenage girls are more at risk of losing out on precious sleep because of the ‘fear of missing out’ (FOMO) factor. Girls do not want to turn off their phones at night lest they miss that ‘all-important’ update from a friend, an invite to a party or reactions to their social media post. Girls also face more peer pressure to stay connected at night as many would rather arrive at school tired and drowsy than be rebuked by friends for being the only one in the group not texting.
For optimal brain function, we all (teenagers and adults) need to focus on better ‘sleep hygiene’: a disciplined schedule to promote better quality sleep and achieving the recommended hours of sleep every night. US writer and educator, Maggie Dent, provides useful ‘tips for better sleep’ in her book, Saving our Adolescents:
• Get plenty of sunshine and exercise every day
• Aim for eight to nine hours of sleep each night
• Drink calming teas like chamomile or warm milk-based drinks
• Create clear boundaries for technology use — keep mobile phones away from bedrooms and switched to silent overnight
• Use an alarm clock instead of a mobile phone
• Create a calm bedroom by removing clutter
• Create a pattern of sleep preparation, such as: shower, teeth, toilet, and bed
• Play calming music or relaxation audios
• Conduct a .b mindfulness practice
• Avoid TV and all screens (including phones) for at least one hour before bed
Pulling an ‘all-nighter’ before an important exam will not lead to a positive outcome. Sleep is precious. We need to see it not as something expendable, but as the cornerstone a balanced lifestyle. We should remember, as the chronically sleep-deprived Macbeth says, that sleep ‘knits up the ravelled sleeve of care’ and is ‘sore labour’s bath, balm of hurt minds, great nature’s second course, chief nourisher in life’s feast’.