Thriving Together Well-Being Weekly: Well-Being and Healthy Sleep

by Mark Thurston, Ph.D., CWB Senior Scholar

Thriving Together Well-Being Weekly: Well-Being and Healthy Sleep

“It is not surprising that sleep problems are a common occurrence in college students. Up to 60% report bad sleep quality… These … rates are alarming, because sleep is related closely to academic success and general health in college students.” - The Journal of Sleep Research

This edition was written by Mark Thurston, Ph.D., a term associate professor in the School of Integrative Studies and the faculty director of Mason’s academic Minor in Well-Being. With a background in psychology, Mark has been at Mason for 12 years, and his courses include INTS 355 “Mindfulness, Meaning, and Well-Being” and INTS 456 “Self-Care and Well-Being for Helping Professionals.” He was also a part of the founding staff for our center, where he served as director of academic programs for several years.

Sleep is the often overlooked 30% of one’s life that contributes mightily to well-being – or the lack of it. There’s clear science that has demonstrated just how closely linked sleep quality is to various aspects of well-being, particularly for college students. In a 2017 meta-analysis of 27 research studies with emerging adults in college, authors Friedrich and Schlarb draw a stark picture of students who are sleep-deprived or suffer from interrupted and poor-quality sleep. Published in the Journal of Sleep Research, their article explores promising interventions, chief among them cognitive behavorial theapy (CBT). They go on to name supportive practices that can make a difference:  “Relaxation techniques, mindfulness and hypnotherapy should be combined with CBT to enhance the effects on comorbid mental health problems.”

This is truly an international problem for university students and not just a well-being crisis in American colleges and universities. For example, in a 2020 issue of Frontiers in Psychology, investigators Wang and Xiao report on research with 228 university students in China. They were especially interested in the possible relationship between sleep quality and learning burnout – a condition which has been demonstrated to be cross-cultural and which we might speculate to have increased in the last year by the effects of the pandemic. The characteristics of learning burnout probably sound familiar to many (if not most) Mason students:  “negative learning mindset, attitudes, and behaviors toward study due to pressure or a lack of learning motivation, which makes people tired. … Learning burnout refers more specifically to burnout in academics, has been considered to include emotional exhaustion, cynicism, and low efficacy.” All of this was found to have been associated with poor sleep quality in the Chinese university students!  

These and many other studies point to just how critical it can be for students to learn and practice interventions that can enhance sleep quality. Academic performance, physical health, and mental health – in other words, the full breadth of students’ overall well-being – seemingly depends profoundly on sleep hygiene.

For my CWB Senior Scholar project for academic year 2019-20, I addressed some of these very issues – then taking what I learned and applying it to two of my Mason courses about well-being for the School of Integrative Studies. But I wanted to reach more than just the limited number of students in my courses, and so I created a free, non-credit Blackboard course with the elements described just below. Any Mason student, faculty or staff member is welcome to send me an email at mthursto@gmu.edu and I will make this Blackboard self-paced course available. Here are four elements that I focused on:

  • Understanding the physiology of sleep – i.e., what goes on in the brain and body when we sleep and move through distinct phases of sleep each night.
  • Making constructive use of the short period of time just before going to bed. Pre-sleep activities can be influential on sleep quality; and I created six thematic, guided meditation experiences which stream from the Blackboard site. Each one has a short presentation of ideas about the theme – themes such as “dealing with uncertainty” or “building resilience” or “rekindling a hopeful spirit.”  That short talk is followed by a guided meditation for about four minutes; and the whole experience is intended to create a positive perspective for moving into the night’s sleep.
  • Finding meaning in our sleep and dream experiences. Dealing with the mysterious realm of dreams may seem a bit tangential to a treatment of sleep hygiene; however, I have found that many Mason students are deeply interested in what to make of the dreams they remember – not so much because of any nightmare that interrupts sound sleep but instead because they have the sense that there must be some value or meaning in those experiences during sleep. Because I have had many years of experience with dream psychology, I have created some simple and easy-to-learn methods for exploring meaning that might be derived from a dream. The Blackboard course includes audio instruction and handouts in those basic, analytical methods.
  • Making optimal use of the first few minutes upon awakening in the morning. Something which is potentially pivotal happens to us as we emerge from sleep and get ready to start the day. We can move back into waking life with intentionality; and thereby the transition to the day can set ourselves up, so to speak, for enhanced well-being. It’s a kind of mindfulness practice which differs from a traditional mindfulness meditation discipline.  Examples of how to do this are included as a recommended intervention in the Blackboard course.

I look forward to getting an email from any of you in the Mason community who would be interested in having a look at the resource I have created. For those who don’t have access to Mason Blackboard or for anyone who would like some immediate well-being practices to promote healthy sleep, here are my top four tips:

  • Experiment and find the optimal number of hours you need to fast before sleeping. Everyone is a bit different, and so will need to test this idea in your own life and find what works best for you. Maybe it’s two or three hours to avoid eating before bedtime, but what works best for you may be quite different than for someone else. (Keep in mind: It’s not just fasting from food. Just as important can be fasting from screen time on your smartphone or computer!)
  • Carefully make wise choices about what you do with your mind and body for the 30 minutes immediately before sleep. Consider what you can read or listen to right before bed which helps relax or reassure you. Some people find that simple yoga stretching or meditation time can be particularly valuable, but you will need to test out options to find your optimal approach.
  • Go to bed early. Sure, that’s not always easy to do. But make sleep a priority as many nights of the week as you can, and make the choices that are required to get to bed early whenever possible.
  • If you wake up in the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, take a positive attitude toward this phenomenon which is experienced by many people. Interestingly, sleep lab findings and historical studies suggest that the human brain evolved to accommodate a daily rhythm of “first sleep” (about four hours), a period of wakefulness in the night, followed by “second sleep” (about four hours). In other words, we’re wired for segmented or bi-phasic sleep. It’s somewhat natural to have those wakeful times in the midst of the night, so don’t fret when it happens to you, but instead just wait until your body is ready to naturally fall asleep again.

Additional Resources

This research study shows the relationship between learning burnout and sleep quality among college students.

This is a systematic review of psychological interventions to improve sleep in college students.

This Journal of Sleep Research article explores sleep phases.

This Sleep Health journal article explains what sleep research can learn from history.

The book At Day's Close: Night in Times Past by A. Roger Ekirch looks at nighttime facts throughout history.