During a stressful period such as exam season, it is common for your anxieties, coupled with an erratic daily schedule with long hours of revision, to manifest as sleep problems and insomnia.
When sleep is crucial to successful exam performance, the last thing you need is to have trouble getting a good night’s rest. So, if you want to get your sleep back on track or at least drift off for a couple more hours, look no further.
Affecting even previously untroubled sleepers, the anxiety around assessments can wreak havoc on your circadian rhythm, causing long periods of restlessness.
When you’re hung up about getting to sleep and watching the time tick past, your increasing distress can create a vicious cycle in which worrying about getting to sleep stops you from drifting off. In these situations, it’s important to just focus on resting rather than forcing yourself to sleep.
Judy Claughton, an accredited Meditation Teacher with expertise in helping young people overcome insomnia and stress, highlights the importance of clearing your mind and focusing on your breathing before bedtime.
She says: ‘Under the pressure of exams, stress will be pumping your body with adrenaline and other hormones that will keep your body in a high alert situation, making it harder to relax and unwind.’
‘Focusing on your breath is one of the easiest ways to bring your autonomic nervous system away from this high-alert state into a space of rest and relaxation – making it easier to feel more focused in the day and ready to sleep at night.’
‘Count how many breaths you take in a minute – where one count is a cycle of inhalation and exhalation.’
‘Now try to regulate your breath to a conscious breath pattern so that you are taking just five or six breaths a minute – the secret is not to hold your breath but to steadily breathe in and out in an even flow. An easy way to do this is to count steadily as you inhale and exhale.’
A racing mind is the biggest obstacle to getting a good night’s sleep during exams. Rather than ruminating over what material you have or have not covered, your first priority should be easing yourself into a calmer, more relaxed state.
Routine is Key
I know what you’re thinking – it isn’t as simple as snapping your fingers and making the worry disappear. For some, it can even feel impossible. That is why a consistent routine is absolutely key. If you’re serious about building healthy habits, erratic mealtimes and collapsing into bed directly after a 3am revision session needs to go.
Lucy Fuller, UKCP Psychotherapist, emphasises that the repetition of the same behaviours is crucial when training your body to get to sleep more easily. ‘It can help to think about the experience of babies and young children, who are good sleepers, and think about what their bedtime and sleeping routine is like.’
‘Start your preparation with a regular last meal of the day which is easily digestible followed by an enjoyable and calm evening. Bedtime should again be at a regular time with a peaceful and unflustered routine.’
‘Get into a cosy bed and do something relaxing that brings you joy. Reading, listening to a podcast or music, or maybe meditating.’
‘If you find it difficult to get to sleep or wake in the night, try to find a way of calming yourself with repetition of the same bedtime routine again.’
‘In the morning, let the routine continue with a fixed time that you get out of bed and make your first activity of the day as calming as possible.’
‘Insomnia cannot be cured instantly but it will be made much better over time by repetition of a healthy routine.’
Judy concurs that integrating helpful habits into your bedtime regimen can make all the difference. This could include exercising or going for a walk after your last set of revision, taking a shower, or listening to music or an audiobook rather than continuing to cram. ‘Notice the last thing you do before you go to sleep. Instead of checking your phone, can you rest and just focus on three good things that happened in your day and try to make this the last thought?’.
Sometimes as a student, “bad” habits can be unavoidable, especially when there are a million competing responsibilities taking up your time, or you have a job that requires you to work late into the night. However, it is important to take care of yourself, not least because this is the best way you can improve your chances of doing well on your assessments.
When all your time is taken up by revision, it’s common to start slacking on basic self-care and housekeeping. Eating well and ensuring that your environment is clean and well-organised are simple habits that can make more of a difference than you think in the quality of your sleep.
Some foods, like salad, bananas, almonds and walnuts and complex carbs are rich in sleep-inducing chemicals and can be eaten in conjunction with a hot drink like herbal tea to really help you relax. However, you should ensure that full meals are eaten at least two hours before you sleep. Otherwise, your body’s digestive processes could interfere with how long it takes to drift off.
Additionally, Judy points out that having too much light in your room can prevent you from sleeping. ‘I’ve known students in halls to black out windows leading to always lit hallways with recycled cardboard to sleep better,’ she said.
Other relaxation methods, like meditation, can be a really powerful tool to alleviate insomnia and to keep calm. ‘Studies show just ten minutes a day can improve sleep patterns in as little as two weeks. You can listen to a meditation on an app like Insight Timer or Calm or free clips on YouTube, or just allow yourself ten minutes to consciously notice your breathing and invite your thoughts to steady.’
However, if none of these methods work and you’re really struggling to get to sleep, consult your doctor. Exhaustion, coupled with the stress of exam season, can be a toxic combination that can cause your mental health to suffer. If it ever gets too much, remember to put yourself first. Your health should always be prioritised over assessments.