Getting an adequate amount of sleep in college has always been a challenge, but students are now struggling to get consistent sleep amidst COVID-19. With the transition of online Zoom lectures, students across the nation attend classes in vastly different time zones, as well, with nearly 50% of USC students being from out-of-state.
Andrew Jiang, a freshman psychology major at USC, attends virtual classes while in Maryland, three hours ahead of California.
“Most days I sleep around 3 a.m. and wake up around 11 a.m. On other days, I sleep at 12 a.m.,” Jiang said. “I feel a lot more tired on average.”
The CDC recommends adults between the ages of 18 to 60 get at least seven hours of sleep per day. However, coronavirus has given many people a reason to have more sleepless nights than they did before.
David De La Cruz, a junior majoring in intelligence and cyber operations, says that for the first few weeks after going into quarantine, the anxiety of the pandemic kept him awake at night.
“It was hard to keep a consistent schedule with all of the uncertainty going on. Stress kept me awake for hours,” said De La Cruz. “I was basically nocturnal since I would finally fall asleep at around five in the morning and get up around two in the afternoon.”
Being tired is not only a product of sleep deprivation, but also from a lack of a consistent schedule. Dr. Kristy Payne, an occupational therapist and professor in USC’s Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, explains why establishing a consistent sleeping regimen with just the right amount of shut-eye is important, especially during periods of prolonged stress.
“Long-term, poor-quality sleep can lead to increased blood pressure, decreased cognitive performance, appetite changes and irritability, to name a few,” Payne said.
Payne suggests that making even a few changes and maintaining consistent sleep, even on the weekends, can improve your sleep quality dramatically and result in greater productivity when you’re awake.
Quality sleep starts right when we wake up. Many of us are guilty of hitting the snooze button and going back to sleep, but those extra 10 minutes might not even help at all.
The body begins preparing in the hours before you naturally wake up: body temperature rises, sleep becomes lighter, and cortisol hormones are released to make us alert. Alarms interrupt that natural cycle and cut this process short, especially without a regular sleep schedule. Relying on the snooze button and trying to go back to sleep can make this even worse.
“After hitting the snooze, it’s possible to re-enter the sleep cycle which can make waking up very difficult,” says Payne.
Instead of your body preparing to awake, it’s going in the opposite direction, and a second alarm can leave you groggy - a sensation called sleep inertia - from which it can take up to four hours to recover.
Payne’s advice? Practice setting one alarm.
“What we do consistently can easily become a habit,” suggests Payne.
Even if you wake up feeling tired, it’s important to resist falling back asleep. Once you get out of bed, there are two things that can make maintaining a steady sleep cycle easier: light and exercise.
Light is a natural alarm for the brain to set in motion. According to Payne, opening the blinds to let in sunlight helps balance cortisol and melatonin, two hormones that are crucial in maintaining our body’s biological clock.
Fitting in aerobic exercises such as running or jump roping can also help our body release endorphins, as well. The brain becomes more active with exercise and the increase in body temperature signals the body to wake up.
Meanwhile, Becca Mann, a junior screenwriting major, says that starting out her day with exercise has been pivotal in keeping herself on top of your assignments.
“Beginning my day with exercise makes me feel like I already accomplished something,” said Mann. “It puts me in the right headspace to get other things done.”
It’s important to not overwhelm our bodies in the hours leading up to sleep.
“Our bodies take time to transition into a restful state,” Payne stated. “it’s helpful to reduce certain excitatory stimuli before bed like light from screens, anxiety-provoking news, or stressful homework assignments.”
Mann now virtually attends her classes from 9 p.m. to midnight in her home state of Illinois, forcing her to shift her routine a few hours back in order to have enough relaxation time before sleeping.
“I now go to bed at 2 a.m.,” she said, “I need time to mentally unwind.”
Going to sleep around the same time everyday is just as important as getting sleep itself. Irregular sleeping patterns not only affect mental health by increasing the risk of depression, but also have been linked to the development of chronic conditions such as heart disease.
With finals approaching, creating a consistent sleeping schedule will help students perform at their best, even from home.
Realizing that his sleep schedule was unhealthy, De La Cruz made a conscious effort to adjust his daily routine. Having mentally settled into the new normal, he now goes to sleep at around 11 p.m. and can wake up at 7 a.m. without an alarm.
“I feel more alert during the day,” he said. “Being able to concentrate has made me feel more productive for the last part of the semester.”
Everyone is tired of COVID-19, but, with the right tools in hand, we can be a little more awake as we get through the day.