Junior Stephen Stapleton takes his coffee black most mornings, but he likes a mocha latte for dessert in the afternoon. He often relies on caffeine to keep him awake due to his disorganized sleep schedule. With schoolwork piling up, extracurricular commitments and social time with friends and family, students like Stapleton often struggle with maintaining a healthy sleep schedule—which can affect relationships and mental health.
Raymond Phinney, who chairs the psychology department at Wheaton, said missing sleep—even a single hour each night—can affect students’ health. “Motor learning is disrupted by a lack of sleep,” Phinney said, “and cognitive skill is massively disrupted by a lack of sleep.”
And when our minds and bodies are affected, so are our emotions and relationships. Sleep deprivation can lower dopamine and serotonin levels, increasing risk of depression. “If you don’t get enough sleep, you’re crabbier,” Phinney said. “Your amygdala is more likely to interpret things as threats or as negative after being sleep deprived, even for one night.”
But for many people, especially college students, such scientific evidence is not enough to establish a consistent sleep schedule of 7 or more hours per night, the amount recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
On a busy week, Stapleton, a political science major, said he might get 3 to 4 hours of sleep a night. With 17 credit hours, along with student government and mock trial, it’s sometimes 3:30 or 4:00 a.m when he hits the sack. Other nights, he will be so exhausted that he’ll end up sleeping between 10 and 12 hours.
“Not having a regular sleep schedule definitely impacts me, but at the same time it’s a sacrifice that I feel I need to make,” he said. “As long as I can manage my own mental state that’s sufficient for living, then I can get everything done that I need to get done [with this sleep schedule].”
Stapleton has not always been such a sporadic sleeper. As a freshman, he would get 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night and sometimes napped during the day. But this year, as extracurriculars opened up after a year of COVID-19 restrictions, he says he sacrifices sleep because of everything he wants to do.
Stapleton says his friends express surprise and concern when they find out about his current sleep schedule. “They usually try to bargain with me to figure out a way to fix it,” he said. “They say, ‘How do you do that? How do you live like that?’ And then they say, ‘Well, if you did X, Y and Z it would be better for you.’ Or I get the response, ‘If you need anything, let me know; I really want to care for you. You seem like you’re struggling!’”
Stapleton has noticed sleep deprivation’s effect on his emotional state. “When I have a bad sleep state, I get into depressive swings and weird moods, either super, super happy or really, really depressed,” he said.
In contrast to Stapleton’s inconsistent sleep patterns, Hannah Rex, a senior music major, is in bed by ten almost every night and wakes at 6:00 to start her day. She has established a bedtime routine that involves reading in bed and staying off her phone—which is easier, perhaps, because she doesn’t have social media.
To limit her nighttime phone activity even more, she uses a physical alarm clock. But she often doesn’t even need her alarm because her body is used to waking up at the same time every day. Usually, she wakes up a few minutes before her alarm goes off. To start each day, she drinks coffee and reads her Bible, taking a quiet moment with God.
“I love the mornings,” said Rex. “My parents are that way and my whole family is that way. Growing up my parents got up around 5:30 or 6. I’ve just naturally started getting up at that time too.”
Rex even keeps her sleep schedule the same on weekends. She considers Saturday a school day, so she wakes up at her normal time to get working on homework. Occasionally she will stay up a little bit for a movie night or special occasion like Prez Ball, but most of the time she stays true to her schedule. She also wakes up at the same time on Sunday so she can be rested and alert for church.
Despite her consistent schedule, even Rex said she suffered from insomnia at the height of the COVID pandemic. Despite maintaining her 10 p.m. bedtime, she would often wake between 2 and 4 in the morning, averaging five to six hours of sleep per night. “With COVID and everything that was happening on campus, I was under a lot of stress and had a lot of anxiety. My body is used to getting close to eight hours a night, so I struggled.”
This year, she’s back to eight hours. “I have a lot more control over my emotions when I get my sleep which directly impacts my relationship,” Rex said. “I have more patience and grace with people. When I don’t get enough sleep, I don’t have that much control over my emotions, so I can get frustrated with people more easily.”
Despite their divergent sleep habits, both Stapleton and Rex see their sleep or lack thereof as a form of reliance on God. “In a weird way, it’s my lack of sleep that is forcing me to rely on God,” Stapleton said. “I will think, ‘I pushed through this, and God will give me rest where there’s time for rest.’ I lean into him for that.”
Yet for Rex, the opposite is true: “Choosing to get seven or eight hours of sleep is a way for me to trust God and acknowledge my body’s limitations.”
Phinney echoed the importance of trusting creation’s design rather than attempting to invent our own best sleep practices. “We like to think that we’re whoever we say we are, but we are creatures of the Earth. And the Earth has its own circadian rhythms that work best.”