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.
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.