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Struggling to Switch Off?

Fran Carruthers explores why sleeping problems affect so many young people today

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Picture this: it's the night after a busy day, you are mentally drained from hours and hours of cramming facts into your brain, and physically exhausted from rushing between the library, seminars, lectures, and extra-curricular commitments. Yet wrapped within the soft folds of a duvet, you are unable to stop the thoughts flashing through your mind.

It's a common scenario, and one that many young people have experienced. The longer you lie there struggling to sleep, the more you worry about how exhausted you'll feel the next day, and whether you'll be able to function to your potential. Sleep problems are a rising phenomenon in the UK, as many studies reveal that more and more young people are being affected - with experts noting that increased technology usage, social media, and reduced time spent relaxing could be to blame.

In a 2016 survey by Dreams, asking more than 15 000 Britons about their sleeping habits, it was found that, "on average, UK residents spend five hours five minutes a week in bed either watching TV, watching a DVD/film or working." The same survey reported that 63.1 per cent of people are "unhappy" with the amount of sleep they get, and only eight per cent of people said that they "always wake up feeling refreshed".

There have been many recent studies linking increased use of technology (including phones, laptops, tablets and any kind of screen), and the rising number of people reporting trouble sleeping. This is due to the fact that such devices emit blue light, which is linked to preventing the release of melatonin - a hormone which reduces our feeling of alertness.

When it comes to students, there are plenty of legitimate causes for stress, which might feed into poor sleeping habits. With increasing financial and academic worries, and pressure from social media all leading to an increasing number of students experiencing mental health problems generally, it's unsurprising that so many of us struggle to get our eight hours a night.
Up to 60% of students suffer from poor sleep and nearly 1 in 10 meet the criteria for insomnia

I myself have had my fair share of sleep-less nights while at university (and no, Mum, they weren't all alcohol-fuelled) - so I was keen to investigate how this impacts other students, and how we can manage it. In order to do so, I find myself speaking to Ian Hamilton, a Health Sciences professor at the University of York. I ask him: what does he think are the most common causes of sleep problems among students?

He says, "As with eating, sleep is a basic human need; a key factor in maintaining health, including mental health. Even one night of poor sleep can reduce your ability to memorise new information, a critical factor when studying or revising for exams. One study suggests that up to 60 per cent of students suffer from poor sleep and that nearly one in ten meet the criteria for insomnia disorder. In some ways, this shouldn't be a surprise given the various things that students have to deal with - like leaving home, increased independence, change in peer groups, new social situations, exams and often unsocial side jobs."

On top of this, as many of us seek out increasing ways to stand out in an ever-competitive graduate job market, rest can sometimes seem to no longer be an option - we're expected to be busy at all times, to be that shining example of a "well-rounded person" that graduate employers look for. With social media encouraging us to constantly compare ourselves to our peers, anxiety can be fuelled by feelings of inferiority.

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I ask Ian whether he thinks that technological advances and our increasing use of devices such as computers and phones may have contributed to sleep problems in young people. As expected, he is fairly certain of a link, responding, "Potentially we are never 'off ' - with automatic notifications of emails, text messages and social media activity, it can feel like we are always available or fearing missing out on something. But it's not just the stimulating effect that messages and information can have on our ability to get ready for sleep. The light these devices emit can supress melatonin, a hormone that helps us naturally get sleepy."

But rising feelings of anxiety are not the only thing that our increased use of technology, and supposed connectedness, has brought us. Asking Ian why we find it so hard to switch off, he says, "Despite our increasing ability to be connected electronically, this can be a poor substitute for face to face social interaction. Several studies suggest many of us paradoxically are becoming more socially isolated and lonely. Having a sense of belonging and people we can share concerns with helps reduce stress, and ruminating about things that are troubling us. An absence of these social inter-actions reduces our ability to switch off, particularly at the end of the day."

So, I ask, when does simply having trouble sleeping step over into more critical conditions? "More serious problems with sleep such as insomnia are characterised by how long sleep has been disrupted and the impact this is having on an individual. But poor sleep is also an indicator of an underlying mental health problem such as depression and anxiety. Addressing these underlying problems by seeking support is likely to improve sleep, which is likely to be a symptom rather than a cause of the problem."

It is hard to deny the link between mental illnesses and sleep issues. According to an analysis by the Institute of Public Policy Research, in 2015-16, more than 15 000 first-year students in the UK disclosed mental health issues - nearly five times as many as were reported a decade ago. And while the number of students affected by mental health issues rises each year, the knock-on effects are felt in terms of wellbeing. In a report from UniHealth, it was revealed that 55 per cent of students have experienced trouble sleeping and 55 per cent have experienced poor diet. While we may consider sleeping and eating to be some of the simplest elements of daily life, for students battling mental health issues, even managing normal routines can be a struggle.
The screens we view information on can disturb our natural winding down

How best to combat sleeping problems? Mastering the bedtime routine seems to be key. Cutting out caffeinated drinks in the later hours of the day, and spending time doing something relaxing like reading a book, having a bath, or writing in a journal before bed might also improve sleep. Switching off technological devices might help our brains to switch off too. For me, I like to refrain from using my phone or laptop in the hour before I go to sleep, instead absorbing myself in a good book.

Ian is also keen to emphasise the importance of getting into routines. "It can be tempting to use pills or alcohol to try and counter poor sleep. While these may work in the short term they won't work for long. Alcohol feels like it helps you get to sleep but is known to reduce the quality of sleep that you need to maintain good mental and physical health."There are some good and cheap alternatives which have been shown to improve getting to sleep and getting the rest you need. Mindfulness and other relaxation techniques can help you wind down and control your thoughts. Being able to control thinking at bedtime is important, as many people find this is when their mind seems to start racing, with thoughts making them anxious or too mentally stimulated to get to sleep. Listening to music is another way that has been shown to help people wind down and fall asleep."

After listening to Ian, I feel at once far more informed, and somewhat more confused. It seems that there is no one-size-fits all approach for improving sleep. The general rules seem to point towards making more time for relaxation, and improving our work-life balance in order to prevent feeling frazzled. However, there is also a strong argument for the case that nowadays student life, with its many tasks, challenges and opportunities, is simply more stressful than it used to be. Do we have the power to change that? Or is it simply an unfortunate fact about the modern world we live in? Frankly, I'm still undecided. One thing I do know is that sometimes it's worth taking a step back, putting down the smartphone, and trying to make time to relax.

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