"Sleep That Knits up the Raveled Sleave of Care" by Jen Hamilton, Director of Counseling/Licensed Educational Psychologist
"Sleep that knits up the raveled sleave of care,
The death of each day's life, sore labor's bath,
Balm of hurt minds, great nature's second course,
Chief nourisher in life's feast."
These words written by Shakespeare more than 400 years ago remind us that, for centuries, we have understood that without adequate sleep, it is very difficult to soothe and nourish our weary minds. Yet when we get stressed or busy, sleep is often the first thing to go. According to a 2015 survey by the National Sleep Foundation, only about 20% of teens are getting 8 hours or more per night. But when adults at Nobles talk about the importance of sleep, many students roll their eyes and cite their packed schedules and large workloads as the reason they cannot get enough shut-eye. Then, they proceed to talk about how exhausted and hungry they are for ways to lower their stress. While I am always eager to roll up my sleeves and work with students on strategies to reduce and cope with stress and anxiety, I frequently explain that before we do that, there is one obvious lever that we can pull that will make the work (both of managing stress and the actual school work) much more manageable: Prioritizing sleep.
It is too easy to say, "I'll get more sleep later, but tonight I need to finish this project," or "I won't be able to fall asleep if I don't finish my work first." However, if a student makes the decision to forego sleep to get work done, a few things happen. First, they have introduced the seductive idea of more time. This can become a very negative and self-perpetuating cycle: Once a student has opened up the possibility that she can create more time by sleeping less, it naturally follows that (in an exhausted state) procrastination will increase, efficiency will decrease (something that normally takes one hour when a student is rested will easily take two when he or she is sleep-deprived) and perhaps most importantly, anxiety will increase and coping skills will be massively reduced.
The most effective way to convince teens that sleep isn't "lost time" is to appeal to their intellectual curiosity and to explain the physiological reasons that sleep is so important. In an assembly earlier this fall, Dr. Hall engaged several prefects and sixies to present (game-show style) some of these facts to the community. One idea offered was that students might not realize that as teenagers, they actually need more, not less, sleep than they did as younger children (the ideal number for peak alertness is actually 9.25 hours for teens aged 13-18, with a range of 8-10 hours being ideal.)
Students may also not realize that when we sleep, a few incredibly important things happen in their brains and bodies:
Our brains prune away all of the unnecessary connections to make room for the new connections that are being laid down (this happens most in the teen years, when the brain's neural pathways are literally reconstructing in an ongoing way.)
The cells comprising the nervous system reorder, which (among other things) impacts metabolic function.
What we learn and practice is consolidated into long-term memory: Information that we take in during the day must be adequately processed during slow-wave and REM sleep. In fact, we continue to learn as we sleep, and sleeping after we learn increases the amount that we retain and understand. (In studies conducted at Harvard Medical School and Trent University in Canada, students were trained to catch a ball attached to a string into a cone-like cup. With practice throughout the day, they were able to increase their accuracy from 50% to 70%. The subjects were re-tested three days later, after either getting adequate sleep or fewer than six hours of sleep per night. For those who got adequate sleep, they found they were able to catch the ball 85% of the time. For those who did not get enough sleep, their performance either did not improve, or actually fell behind.)
Our bodies' levels of stress hormones decrease. Without adequate sleep, we are much more likely to become depressed, stressed, inattentive, and to engage in risk-seeking behaviors.
With adequate sleep, we vastly reduce the likelihood of developing a host of serious physical ailments (including Type 2 Diabetes, obesity, heart disease, high blood pressure, Alzheimer's Disease, recurrent headaches, and lowered immunity.) It is also worth noting that both sleep and scheduled down-time are essential for teens' physical and mental well-being. Teens need to process and reflect on big questions around their identities such as "Who am I?" "Where do I belong?" "Who do I want to become?"
In addition to sharing this important information with our teens, another great place to start is to make sure we are setting a good example for our children. (It is hard to have credibility if our kids see us burning the candle at both ends!) When we all commit to getting enough sleep, when we set a non-negotiable cut-off time to wind down and get into bed, we are much more efficient, sharp, mentally and physically healthy, and able to manage stress. We are all in this together!