A College Student’s Worst Nightmare


            The trance of indulgence; the coma of delectation; the utopia of the unconscious; the ultimate bliss. Within these four facets resides, perhaps the most significant and vital aspect of the college lifestyle. Ironically enough though, it can also be the most detrimental. It can become our greatest downfall. With it comes something that we, as human-beings, spend over a third of our entire lifetimes doing. With it, comes something that our bodies cannot physically live without; something that we innately crave; something that, if we were to even merely attempt to live without, would ravage our precious minds and completely eradicate our very existence.

The “anomaly” being marveled at here is sleep.

The sensation being referenced that could potentially lead to the complete and utter mental dilapidation of someone is sleep’s long-time foe, sleep deprivation.

Sleep is not a recommended function, in fact, it is an imperative function. One cannot physically or mentally function properly after extended periods of sleep deprivation.



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Sleep deprivation is a common occurrence for college-aged students, but more alarmingly, voluntary sleep deprivation is its most frequently practiced form. “Voluntary sleep deprivation” is simply when one partially deprives themselves of sleep during the week and then attempts to compensate for their lack of sleep by sleeping in later on the weekends. As June Pilcher and Amy Walters write in their article titled “How Sleep Deprivation Affects Psychological Variables Related to College Students’ Cognitive Performance”, “This pattern of sleep deprivation and rebound becomes more pronounced around examination periods, sometimes resulting in 24 to 48 hours of total sleep deprivation.” This generates an increase in daytime sleepiness (feeling sleepy during the day), which decreases the student’s ability to pay attention during class, and it negatively affects their ability to perform well on their exams.

Daytime sleepiness reduces academic achievement and learning, but also impairs behavioral performance. One suggestion for this is that the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain responsible for coordinating and adjusting behavior, for handling emotions, for focusing and organizing attention, and for prioritizing simultaneous and competing information) is affected by insufficient amounts of sleep. “Sleep is a time when brain activity for restoration of neurocognitive functioning takes place (Dewald, Meijer, Oort, Kerkhof, & Bögels, 2010 ).” The insufficient amount, the disruptions in, and the lapses of sleep that can occur will lead to the impairment of behavioral, physiological (relates to the normal functions of living organisms and their body parts), and neurocognitive (relates to the processes within the brain that help us think) processes, which are critical for our learning capacities and our academic performances.


Effects of Sleep Deprivation:

With the development of poor sleeping patterns and sleep deprivation in general, comes a whole slew of negative consequences. It is well established that sleep deprivation can lead to noticeable decrements in performance levels (primarily in cognitive, or mental, functioning), but decreases in attention spans and lapses in one’s abilities to focus may also occur. In addition to these impacts, the issues faced by those who are sleep deprived may range anywhere between mood irregularities, abnormal behavioral patterns, and increased risk of serious injury. Oftentimes these issues derive from a delayed sleep-wake cycle, which combats the natural, biological flow of one’s circadian rhythm (one’s own personal sleep/wake or body clock).

Common sleeping problems for college-aged students and adolescents to develop are DSPT (delayed sleep phase type), which is simply the “delay of circadian rhythms”, or when individuals fall asleep and wake up at consistent, but exponentially later times. Sleep apnea, which is the interruption of breathing during sleep, is also a sleeping problem in which college-aged students are prone to acquiring.

A lack of sleep, whether stemming from intrinsic (natural) factors or extrinsic (coming from outside) factors, affects one’s behavior and leads to increased difficulty of processing correctly. It also reduces academic achievement and one’s overall ability to learn. This lack of sleep can be most attributed to early school-starting hours, which forces teenagers to lose quality sleeping time; and also forces them to perform well academically during their least productive time of day. It is consistently illustrated in reviews that sleepiness during the day dramatically affects academic performance.

Sleep deprivation can have a major influence on the quality of one’s life. Poor sleeping patterns are often associated with the leading causes for increases in unhealthy behavioral choices, for increases in emotional or mood disorders, and for increases in substance abuse. Adolescents and young adults account for over 50 percent of serious, fall-asleep motor vehicle accidents. The demands of college also put a burden on adolescents and young adults who are entering it. Many “hop on board” the “stimulation-sedation loop cycle,” meaning that many consume caffeine or other stimulants to stay awake during the day, and then proceed to use depressants at night to counter the influences of the stimulants. It is also worth noting that well above 50 percent of adolescents who are entering drug rehabilitation programs, have self-medicated themselves to try to manage their schedules more efficiently.









Treatment Options:

As for treatment options, practicing good sleep hygiene, working on circadian rhythm management, and utilizing white noise are listed as the most effective combatants to sleep deprivation. Sleep hygiene practices can include anything from avoiding late-afternoon naps, avoiding the use of alcohol or stimulants before bed, avoiding caffeine, and refraining from doing anything too active right before going to sleep. Circadian rhythm management is simply going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. All of these, strategies though, can improve the quality and quantity of one’s sleep.

If good sleep hygiene is ineffective, then several other methods may have to be approached. Nurses must first assess for an underlying medical or sleep disorder before proceeding to anything further though.

  • Psychotherapeutic (resynching of the circadian rhythm) practices may be suggested. This involves delaying sleep times by 3 hours every day over a 5-day period.
  • Psychopharmacological (branch of psychology concerned with the effects of drugs on the mind and behavior) practices may be suggested. This involves the administration of melatonin, which is a hormone that plays a key role in controlling one’s circadian rhythm by inducing sleep.
  • A dual-treatment approach may be suggested. This is simply combining melatonin administrations at night with bright light in the morning. Gradually, the time of treatment for both options will increase about 15-30 minutes every few days.
  • Psychiatric, family, pediatric and advanced practice nurses should also evaluate for sleep disturbances. This includes anxiety, depression, and somatic pain among others.



While sleep can certainly feel like heaven and reinvigorate our bodies and minds, it can be our (adolescents and young adults) worst nightmare. We fail to recognize the impact that sleep plays on the quality of our lives. Without sleep, our mind doesn’t function properly; our body doesn’t function properly; our attention span constricts; our reaction times deteriorate; our abilities and performances dwindle. Our quality of life simply languishes before our eyes. Sleep just may be, perhaps, the most significant aspect in life and the blueprint to all future successes.


Sources utilized and works cited:

Marhefka, Julie King,R.N., M.S.N. “Sleep Deprivation: Consequences for Students.” Journal of Psychosocial Nursing & Mental Health Services, vol. 49, no. 9, 2011., pp. 20-25 ProQuest Central, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/887977636?accountid=14244.doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3928/02793695-20110802-02.

Dewald J F , Meijer A M , Oort F J , Kerkhof G A , Bögels S M , (2010). The influence of sleep quality, sleep duration and sleepiness on school performance in children and adolescents: A meta-analytic review. Sleep Medicine Reviews, 14, 179—189, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/887977636?accountid=14244.doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.3928/02793695-20110802-02

Pilcher, June J., PhD., and Amy S. Walters M.A. “How Sleep Deprivation Affects Psychological Variables Related to College Students’ Cognitive Performance.” Journal of American College Health, vol. 46, no. 3, 1997., pp. 121-126 ProQuest Central, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/875111673?accountid=14244.