Need an Excuse to Sleep More? Read This.

I have a friend who, throughout a busy grad school semester, juggled four classes, worked a 20-hour-per-week internship, ran a business, and still somehow managed to feed her dogs and maintain a relationship (albeit a strained one) with her missus. She did all this by cutting down on the thing that would complain the least: sleep.

Toward the end of the semester, she started to suffer from nerve pain in her right arm and shoulder. She already dealt with chronic pain from the waist down due to a spine injury, but this was new. Not only was the pain really uncomfortable and distracting, but it was concerning that she was losing sensation in her fingers. She couldn’t feel her hand!

How did she rectify her scary nerve situation? You probably won’t be shocked to learn two things: 1) the friend was me, and 2) I fixed it all by getting more sleep.

Many of us are taking the summer off from our studies to work, remind friends and family that we still exist, and do the little things like eat and sleep. Sleep, although as essential as air, food, and water to go on living and breathing, is often the first to go when our schedules become hectic and demanding.

In a previous article, I came out to you all as a multipotentialite, someone who has many different interests and could never choose just one. Before embarking on this adventure in library school, I finished a degree in psychology and neuroscience and learned a lot about how our brains work. It turns out, sleep does some really interesting things for our brains when it comes to learning and memory. It is also essential to self care. At the end of the day (ha!), sleep just may be the ultimate library school hack.

Learning and Memory

First, in order to retain any of the overwhelming amount of information we devote our precious hours to studying, we must sleep. Although the distinct processes are not yet fully understood, one of the prevailing theories is that the information we absorb during the day, and store short-term in the hippocampus, is sent out to longer term storage areas in different parts of the cortex. This is shown to happen especially during slow-wave sleep, where our neurons connect up and communicate with each other by creating synapses.

Mood and Emotions

One of the jobs of our medial prefrontal cortex is to help us out with impulse control and emotion regulation. Thanks to the work of this part of the brain, we refrain from saying or doing things we might later regret. Sleep deprivation, what we tend to experience in graduate school, limits the function of the prefrontal cortex and leads to lots of big feelings and apologies after the fact. When I began my first graduate program, the professors told us that ending long-term relationships during the program was “typical”. Part of me wondered if chronic lack of sleep didn’t play a major role in many of these break-ups.

Physical Health

The toll on my physical health from sleep deprivation was both debilitating and motivating. In that grueling semester, I made changes to my schedule so that I could get more sleep and begin a period of recovery. I already knew that sleep was the primary factor in regulating the effects of my disability, but sometimes we struggle with what our minds want to do and what our bodies can handle. This is only emphasized by the fact that sleep deprivation is linked with many serious health problems, whereas adequate sleep is thought to serve as a protective factor.

Great, but I’m still in grad school.

So, what do we do? Making a few small changes can give us the extra sleep we need to keep up our stamina throughout the semester.

  • First, we can’t get around the fact that we have to make sleep a priority. This may mean sacrificing in other areas, but it is well worth it.
  • Second, practice good “sleep hygiene”. Create a clean, uncluttered, quiet sleeping environment, so that you are less likely to be stressed and distracted as you try to sleep. If possible, stick to as similar a sleep/wake cycle each day.
  • Most importantly, light tells our brains that we should we should be in a state of wakefulness, so put all of your screens away an hour before bedtime and make your environment as dark as possible once you turn out the lights. We live in a small studio in a busy apartment building, so I use a sleep mask and earplugs (despite all the slack I take from my missus). Don’t judge—the sleep is brilliant!

 

How do you get the sleep you need? Please share your tips in the comments!

Photo of a sleeping Beagle puppy taken by the author.

Categories: Honesty

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6 replies

  1. I’ve definitely struggled with lack of sleep. I used to work a job where I was on duty from 11 PM to 5:30 AM. I left that because lack of sleep hit me hard and I am incapable of sleeping during the day. Ever since sleep has been one of my top priorities. I try to avoid staying up past 10 PM.
    I like the term multipotentialite. I’ve always used the word polymath for myself.

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  2. Thanks for this great post! I’ve noticed that getting more sleep is very “in” as a journalistic topic but I think grad students can definitely use an extra nudge since, as you pointed out, people have the perception that sacrificing sleep is a must. I am a spoonie who is not out about my diagnosis to most people in my professional/school circles. I was told in no uncertain terms shortly after my diagnosis that if I screw around with my sleep schedule I’ll be facing a health crisis in short order. With a gun to your head like that, you quickly realize that you really can prioritize sleep over other things. I don’t work/study full time anymore and sometimes feel weird about this since I haven’t given a lot of my colleagues/classmates an explanation. It would be easier in some ways to cut back on sleep which is less visible than cutting back on work, but sooner or later I know I’d pay with my health. And by the way, non-spoonies who are reading this, the doctor who gave me that lecture also emphasized (as the author here has done) that the dangers of sleep deprivation apply to everyone, they’re just heightened for folks with chronic illnesses.

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