With public exams and “finals” looming for many students across the UAE, excessive revision and its impact on sleep patterns can have serious repercussions both mentally and physiologically, according to Tanya Dharamshi, leading counselling psychologist at The Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai.
“Sleeping in, napping, going to bed late or sometimes not at all – these are all habits associated with students, but never more so than during the immensely stressful summer exam period. However, alongside a healthy approach to diet, exercise, organisation and stress management, the amount of sleep students achieve is paramount to their overall wellbeing and should form a key part of exam preparation,” explains Tanya.
Previous studies by The Sleep Council found that in the month leading up to exams, the number of teenagers who managed just five to six hours sleep a night doubled to 20%. The overwhelming majority - 83% - of teens said their sleep was affected by stress and pre-exam nerves, whilst 56% admitted to regularly cramming all their revision for an exam into one night.
Tanya, who expects to see a spike in the number of stress-related patients during this period, is keen to highlight how mental health and sleep are intrinsincly linked. “Without proper levels of sleep, we get irritable, stressed and can end up feeling like an amnesiac. In extreme cases it can even lead to depression and panic disorder. Naturally, our coping skills suffer as a direct result. We withdraw from social interaction, develop feelings of loneliness and our tendency to worry increases, which further affects sleep, so a negative mental health cycle is borne which can be extremely difficult to break.”
For those students who regularly pull ‘all-nighters’ prior to an exam, Tanya has some words of warning: “Studying throughout the night prevents the essential process that takes place during our deepest part of sleep, known as Rapid Eye Movement (REM). It’s during this time that our brain processes learned information and stores it in our long-term memory. Without this, we become forgetful, our performance slows down and our mental alterness deteriorates severely.
“Worryingly, after being awake for more than 16 hours continuously, our mental capacity is as impaired as someone who is drunk. I therefore cannot stress enough how vital sleep is in order for the body and brain to repair itself on a daily basis.”
A study of Harvard College students in the journal Scientific Reports found that students who did not go to bed, or wake up, at consistent times every day were more likely to have lower grades. So, while sleeping for at least eight hours every night might not suit everyone, maintaining consistent sleep patterns - going to bed and waking up at the same time every day - is crucial, even at weekends.
Tanya is encouraging students to adopt the following ‘sleep hygiene’ steps over the next few weeks to help ensure exam success:
• Turn your bedroom into a ‘sanctuary’ - free from electronic devices, textbooks, revision aides and other exam-related paraphanelia. If you use your room to study in, ensure all school work is packed away every night and not visibile from your bed.
• Establish a nightly routine - from a warm bath and a cup of warm milk/herbal tea to using a scented pillow spray and listening to calming music. Create an environment which is comfortable and free from anything exam-related.
• Improve your diet – do not skip meals or opt for ‘fast food’ to save time. Wholesome meals and healthy snacks help keep blood sugars stable and are all ‘fuel’ for the brain.
• Avoid stimulants – limit cigarettes and caffeine consumption during the day and refrain from both at least six hours prior to bedtime. This includes fizzy drinks and chocolate.
• Exercise on a regular basis – even a walk around the block can ‘freshen’ the brain, provide a welcome pause for thought and help keep things in perspective.
• Tech-free time – ensure at least one-hour of tech-free time before bed. Remove any temptation by leaving phones and tablets outside of your room at night as their noise and light can interfere with sleeping. LCD screens on phones and tablets emit light that is blue enriched. This light influences the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and delays the release of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin.”
• Maintain a regular sleep pattern – go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including at weekends, and do not nap! Irregular sleeping has a delayed release of the sleep hormone melatonin, which helps to set both the sleep and wake cycles for the body by as much as three hours.