CWRU psychologist offers tips for a better night’s sleep

Natalie Staats Reiss, a licensed psychologist in University Counseling Services at Case Western Reserve University, offers tips to help anyone get a better night’s rest—especially college students adjusting to a new environment and bed.

First, establish a routine—go to bed at roughly the same time each night and wake at the same time each morning. As much as possible, stick to the routine on weekends, too, where late-night Fridays and Saturdays can disrupt sleep rhythm.

It’s important to remember that we cannot “bank” sleep. College students who sleep 14 hours on Sunday to make up for lost sleep during the week are actually sabotaging their sleep cycles.

Napping during the day to replenish energy lost at night can also be problematic.  Naps can result in an unhealthy cycle, where it becomes even more difficult to fall asleep at the appropriate time. Shortened nighttime sleep, variable sleep schedules and napping can also interfere with important hormones released during various sleep stages needed for a restful night.

Set the stage for sleep:

  • Lower the lights as bedtime approaches.
  • Replace pillows, add cushioned mattress pads or adjust bed coverings that make sleep uncomfortable.
  • Designate the bed for sleeping, not entertainment. Avoid doing homework, watching television, working on the computer or eating in bed.
  • Block out noise and bright light. Consider using earplugs or eye masks in environments (like dorm rooms) where these variables are harder to control.
  • Keep the bedroom at a cool temperature and with good ventilation. If the dorm room or apartment does not have air-conditioning, open the windows and use fans to circulate air.
  • Avoid eating and exercising close to bedtime.

Once the optimal sleep environment is established, investigate other possible causes of why getting a restful night’s sleep is difficult.

Reiss suggests keeping a daily diary on paper, a computerized spreadsheet or even using a smartphone app to track your sleep patterns. Record how long it takes to get to sleep, the length of sleep, mood at the time of sleep, pain level, energy or fatigue level, daytime activities (such as exercise), and caffeine intake. Then, look for a pattern that emerges on days with either a good or bad night’s rest. Work to change the variables that are contributing to poor sleep.

If these strategies don’t work, Reiss recommends checking with a doctor to find out if some other underlying medical problem exists that disrupts the sleep cycle. She also suggests consulting with a mental health professional to assess and treat emotional issues like depression and anxiety that often impair sleep.

Relaxation, meditation, cognitive behavioral therapy and biofeedback are all common techniques that can help individuals struggling with sleep problems.  Experts at University Counseling Services and Health Services can assist students in developing individualized plans to get back on track with healthy sleep.