With COVID-19 cases on the rise across the country, students are experiencing worse sleep health, which is taking a physical and mental toll on students, according to Stanford professors.
“I always had issues just getting enough sleep, but now my problem is that even if I set aside enough time, I just cannot sleep through a night anymore,” said Courtney Rosales ’23. “I usually will wake up anywhere from like four to twenty times during the night from the smallest things.”
Stanford professors noted that while students have been in bed longer thanks to quarantine, the quality of their sleep has diminished. Psychiatry professor and Sleep Health and Insomnia Program Director Rachel Manber said in a Q&A with Stanford Medicine that these unprecedented times could potentially lead to an increase in the amount of sleep that people receive, citing examples of students who might have had an earlier school schedule before quarantine.
Practicing sleep doctors like clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Scott Kutscher said he has noticed this trend in his patients as well.
“What I find in a lot of my patients is that they are sleeping more, but the satisfaction of their sleep isn’t necessarily better,” said Kutscher. “I think that speaks to just the dramatic change in the environment.”
Research has found that this shift seems to be prevalent among college students at this moment. In an observational study that investigated sleep health behaviors during the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Colorado Boulder students were found to be sleeping more than they had been pre-lockdown, although this increase in quantity hasn’t necessarily resulted in an increase in quality.
The global pandemic serves as a source of anxiety that can play a role in altering the quality of sleep due to the uncertainty and negativity present in the media that students consume, according to Kutscher.
“There is an underlying kind of anxiousness that can build up right around these times, and for many people that can come about and become more acute while they’re sleeping,” Kutscher said.
Such stress could come in the form of dreams.
According to clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences Rafael Pelayo, the increased reports of nightmares during the pandemic could be a reflection of the increased anxiety during this time.
Rosales is among those that have noticed a change in daily dreaming patterns.
“I have substantially more vivid dreams now,” Rosales said. “There’s always some stressful component or about them, and I’ve had some very vivid nightmares.”
Pelayo said that the spike in nightmares could be due to the fact that people are generally sleeping more in quarantine, although he said that there is no way to truly measure this phenomenon, noting that the nightmares could also result from a combination of the uncertainty and anxiety provoked by the pandemic.
Although there are still uncertainties about what exactly school will look like in the fall, students planning to return to campus are worried about their sleep health and habits.
Rosales states that because she is juggling many different things at once, health doesn’t always make it to the top of her priority list. Due to the ongoing pandemic, she is more concerned than ever about the health of herself and those around her.
“I’m scared that I will put myself at bottom priority in an attempt to kind of achieve everything else,” Rosales said. “There’s the fear of knowing that if anyone in my cohort is kind of irresponsible, or if I somehow endanger them, there’s a really adverse impact for a lot of people for the choices that I directly make more than before.”
For those students especially, Kutscher said, it is important to stay flexible and learn to listen to their bodies, in order to be able to better handle any sudden changes in the future. A lack of these healthy habits can develop into long term and even chronic sleep disorders over time.
Students attending virtual classes in the fall will also face stressors that alter their sleep schedules, including time zone differences.
“The pathway for many sleep disorders, especially those in the category of insomnia, include a pre-precipitating incident that might make you more aware of the sleep problem,” Kutscher said. “Once you’re aware of it, it can continue to perpetuate even if the kind of stimulus right that initiated it goes away.”
However, both Kutscher and Pelayo are optimistic that both virtual and in-person students will be able to adapt to the situation.
“My advice is to plan out your sleep just like you might plan out an exercise regimen or a diet,” Kutscher said. “Make time during the day for things you enjoy, because positive motivators really make a difference in your overall sleep.”
Pelayo hopes to remind students that Stanford offers many resources to improve the quality of their sleep if professional treatment is needed.
“It’s unusual for patients to not improve when they seek help from a sleep doctor,” Pelayo said. “There are really good tools and resources available, especially on our campus, to help our students sleep better.”
Contact Myra Xu at [email protected].