The real nightmare of sleep deprivation


Pulling all-nighters has become a sport at New College. And most students are participating in it. Although sleep deprivation might feel like an initiation into the “college life,” especially as finals approach, instead it’s a game to be forfeited.

Americans in general have been sleeping less, and the typical college student is not getting enough sleep. On average, college students get between 6-6.9 hours of sleep per night, due to an activity involvement overload. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, inadequate sleep can affect a student’s health, mood, GPA and safety.

“When we’re in college and we see everyone else is sleep deprived around us, we don’t take sleep deprivation seriously,” Counseling and Wellness Center (CWC) Coordinator and Health Educator Amanda “Mandy” Parente said. “It’s kind of what is expected of college students.”

The American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment conducted a sleep study with 43,000 student participants to understand the correlation between sleep and academic performance. The study found sleep deprivation can have effects similar to binge drinking and smoking marijuana, but can vary from person to person.

For me, it’s most noticeable when I don’t get any sleep at all, as opposed to an hour or two which is usual for me,” second-year Lily Solomon said. “If I really haven’t slept in 36 hours, then I definitely feel drunk. It’s hard to concentrate my gaze on one thing, and when I move too fast, A.K.A normal speed, I get pretty light-headed and confused.”

However, there are more nightmarish effects of sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep can contribute to severe emotional problems according to Dr. Steven Feinsilver, the director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

Since appropriate amounts of sleep vary from one person to another, there is no telling how long someone can go without sleep, or how little sleep one must get to be considered sleep deprived. People are considered sleep deprived if they receive less sleep than they need to feel awake and attentive.

Research over the years has shown people can become psychologically and physically damaged from lack of sleep. Some of the first effects of sleep deprivation can start small and even minor signs can affect a person’s cognitive and emotional function.

Sleep deprivation can lead to a lack of positive emotion and can distort recognition of other peoples’ mood. A sleep-deprived brain may not be able to understand positive emotion as well as a well-rested brain might; for example, they may perceive someone’s happiness as neutral.

“I hadn’t slept all last night or the day before, and I started getting really irritated at my roommate for making noise in her room, even though she’s my best friend and I would never normally feel that way. I knew it was only because I was sleep-deprived, but I couldn’t make myself actually realize that emotionally. Once I got some sleep, however, all was well,” Solomon said.

A single night of sleep deprivation can cause a person to experience an occurrence known as “microsleeps” the following day. A microsleep is when a person falls asleep for up to 30 seconds. In some cases, some people’s eyes remain open during the microsleep, however their sight is temporarily stunted.

Research shows evidence of the brain inducing in an uncontrollable and rapid sleep state in which a person can force themselves awake, only to fall victim to another microsleep. This condition is dangerous, especially if operating a vehicle.

I have experienced microsleeps on a few occasions, but only when in extreme cases of sleep deprivation or when I have to do something like work a long day, or drive a long way,” Solomon said.

In extreme cases, loss of sleep may lead to delirium, causing a person to become vulnerable to disorientation or hallucinations.

“I’ve never hallucinated while awake, but I have often experienced sleep paralysis, which I think is maybe even more terrifying,” Solomon said. “Sleep paralysis happens for me when I’m trying to fall asleep after having not slept for at least 36 hours. When someone is in REM sleep, their body becomes paralyzed so that it can’t move too much while a person is dreaming. It’s the worst feeling I’ve ever had, my body is completely paralyzed, but my brain is active and I feel like I’m trapped in my own body.”

Sleep paralysis is one of the oldest recorded “diseases,” and versions of it have become myths in multiple cultures dating back to more than a thousand years. Through these accounts, people have described hallucinations that inspired the famous character, Freddy Kruger, from the Nightmare on Elm Street.

“My hallucinations are often the same as the ones so many people have described for a thousand years,” Solomon said. “A dark, sometimes hooded figure that is shrouded in a cloud of smoke is sitting either on top of me, or at the other end of the room looking at me. I know it’s dangerous, but I can’t run away or scream or anything because I’m paralyzed. Lots of people call sleep paralysis ‘sleep-death’ and that seems pretty accurate to me.”

Because New College is home to high achieving students, determination for a satisfactory evaluation may come at the cost of one’s health.

“It’s cool here to be tired,” Parente said. “It’s cool here to be busy. We’re glorifying the overworked and over-busy. We’re not doing enough to kind of counteract that, and glorify the self-care piece, and glorify that ‘you should be sleeping a lot’ piece.”   

Currently, Parente is working with the New College Student Alliance (NCSA) and the Positive Programming Committee to organize a stress reduction and sleep week program in preparation for finals. The stress reduction and sleep week would include sleep packs with eye masks, earplugs and sleeping tips, as well as nap zones.

“[Nap zones] are something we are looking at as long-term,” Parente said. “We want to find a space on campus that can just be a nap zone.”

Though studying might appear to be a priority as finals near, do not be afraid to give it a rest. Parente suggests students set an alarm to remind them to go to sleep, put away their computer at least two hours before going to bed and focus on time management.

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