Sleep Disorders at College
Sleep problems are probably the most common physical complaint of college students and of the rest of the general U.S. population as well. In "Understanding Insomnia: Scope, Severity, and Solutions," Gary Zammitt, who runs the sleep disorder clinic at St. Luke's Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, says that according to the most recent poll, almost 69 million Americans, or 35 percent of the adult population of the United States, experiences common symptoms of insomnia. At college, the numbers are even higher. A recent study found that only 11 percent of the students surveyed were getting a good night's sleep. The rest of the sample had moderate to severe sleep complaints. Keith is one of these restless sleepers:
Keith went off to college knowing he had sleep problems. In fact, back in high school, his family physician had given him a prescription medication to help him sleep. "It wasn't a constant problem," says Keith. "But whenever I was feeling stressed, I'd be awake all night. That usually happened when I had an important test the next day, or if my baseball team was going to be playing a big game, or even if I was thinking about asking a girl to go to the movies." When Keith most needed sleep, it just wouldn't come, so the pills helped him through the occasional bad night.
At college, the stress-related sleep problems continued, but because the stress was greater and more frequent, so was his insomnia. "Actually," he admits, "I was feeling so stressed so often that I rarely slept soundly without the pills. So soon my sleep problems became one of my stressors. I would go to bed worrying that I wouldn't be able to sleep and that worry kept me from sleeping, so I'd take a sleeping pill and then worry that I was taking the pills too often."
When Keith rather quickly finished his prescribed pills, he tried doing without them. "When I knew I was running out of pills, I cut back on taking them, but then without sleep, I was always so tired and I couldn't concentrate and I noticed that I was getting sick a lot. I often had a cold, or a stomach virus, or a sore throat. I tried using alcohol to get to sleep, and it worked, but only for about four hours; then I'd be awake again. Every day was such a struggle."
Finally, Keith went to the school's counseling center to get a new prescription. He got the pills, but he also got information, tips, and strategies to help him manage his sleep patterns better. Keith knew that he had developed a tolerance to the pills because they no longer worked as well as they used to, so he was looking for some other kind of help. "I didn't like taking the pills to sleep," says Keith, "and they didn't work well anymore anyway. But I didn't know what else to do. Every part of my life was affected by that awful feeling of chronic tiredness. I just dreaded going to classes and couldn't concentrate at all. After a while, I didn't even want to go out with my friends or do any kind of physical activity. I would just lie in my bed whenever I didn't have classes and try to sleep. Trying to sleep is just the worst thing in the world." (See Chapter Seven for some of the tips and strategies that worked for Keith.)
Many students, like Keith, arrive at college knowing they have sleep problems, but many others develop toxic sleep patterns after they arrive. It is a rite of passage and badge of honor to stay up all night partying on the weekend or writing a paper or studying for an exam. For many students, it is part of the college culture, and so telling our children to "get a good night's sleep" will not solve the problem. But helping them understand the cumulative effects of these habits might sway them to rethink that lifestyle.
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