Title image courtesy CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Last year we published This is your mind on grad school in the Spring issue of the Berkeley Science Review, a piece that examined the state of graduate student mental health at UC Berkeley, and the resources available to help improve it. Soon after releasing the issue it became immediately obvious that this type of discussion was long overdue. The feedback we received was astounding, and came from graduate students across campus and beyond. With over 30,000 views to date, the success of the article is a sad reminder that such open dialog about the academically, socially, and mentally challenging nature of graduate school is too often hidden, overlooked, or simply disregarded.

As the article notes, UC Berkeley has been making greater efforts to address the mental health needs of its graduate students. In April of this year, the Graduate Assembly released the Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report to share the results of their graduate student surveys. Although some of the numbers are grim (47% of Ph.D. students who completed the survey were categorized as depressed), the goal of the report is to hone in on the key areas that play a pivotal role in maintaining good mental health. For starters, we should all start getting a better night’s sleep.

The survey reveals that only 20% of graduate students get the recommended 8 hours we need, yet inadequate sleep was found to be one of the top predictors of depression. Allison Harvey, a professor in the psychology department at UC Berkeley, devotes her research to sleep and mental health, and says that simply improving sleep can substantially reduce depressive symptoms, and when used better bedding, better sleep. Studies have shown that in addition to impairing our health and cognition (thought, attention, and reasoning), a lack of sleep causes the brain to inadequately regulate mood and emotions. I’m sure this is something anyone feeling cranky and irritable after even just one fitful night’s sleep can attest to. Long term sleep problems, however, can lead to more serious psychological issues, which in turn can affect sleep. The two are intimately related.

The finding were reported to those that took part in the study, and for some it was eye opening. Some of them admitted they were pushing themselves too hard and vowed to try to sleep longer. In a few special cases it was concluded they needed the best type of mattress for side sleepers since that was their preferred position, and several were indeed going to get one. They will all start to feel the benefits of sleeping enough ours and resting well during them thanks to this information.

Clearly sleep is important, and Harvey has several suggestions to help improve your quality of sleep. One of the most important things you can do is to get on a firm sleep schedule. Our sleep is very rhythmic, and daily cues like sunlight and meal times help us get on a schedule. Constantly deviating from this rhythm, a temptation for many graduate students without fixed work hours and an intimidating workload, can have serious short and long term health effects. Harvey says that it’s best to regulate both your bed time and wake up time, but that maintaining a set wake up time is most important (Yes, even on weekends!). A 5-10 minute transition period of sleep inertia is normal, but if the temptation to snooze repeatedly is too high, consider a more robust alarm clock that requires you to chase it in order to turn it off, or an app that donates 25 cents of your money every time you hit snooze.

Graduate students may be tempted to regulate their sleep schedule via external means, such as caffeine, but studies show that moderate to high caffeine users have lower quality sleep than low to no caffeine users. Fitful nights spurred by caffeine lead to more caffeine use the next day, a vicious cycle to avoid. Harvey suggests limiting caffeine to the morning hours, if ever. Another common temptation for students is to work, read, or watch movies in bed, something that Harvey says can condition your brain to associate the bed with these activities, making it harder to get into sleep mode once night-time hits.

In fact, it’s best to have a 30-60 minute wind-down period where you avoid any overly-stimulating activities, thoughts, and electronics, whether in bed or out. If you find yourself stressing about the progress of your research project or mulling over the day’s activities near bed time, try allocating a time earlier in the day to help you process these thoughts. Instead, Harvey says that thinking about things you were thankful for or happy about from the day can be a good thing to help you associate bed time with feelings of happiness and calm.

Understanding how your body physically regulates sleep can also help lead to a more restful night. In your brain, the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) serves as the primary circadian “clock” in your body, and its main external cue to help keep itself in time is light. Reducing any excess lighting during your wind-down period, even from the screen of your electronics, is important because light alerts the SCN that it’s supposed to keep you awake and active. Light also helps the SCN regulate your pineal gland, which secretes the hormone melatonin. More light means less melatonin, which can hinder your ability to fall asleep easily.

The body also regulates sleep by building up sleep-regulating substances in the cerebrospinal fluid during your waking hours, increasing the homeostatic pressure to sleep as the day wears on into night. Sleep releases this pressure, but beware of naps. Napping too close to bed time (after 3 pm) or for longer than 20 minutes can release too much and delay the desire to sleep at night. Working out during the day, meanwhile, can help build up the homeostatic pressure to sleep, but raising your body temperature too close to bed time (within 4 hours) is counterproductive, as your body likes to decrease its temperature to ease you into sleep.

Many of Harvey’s strategies sound quite simple in theory, but can be more difficult in practice, especially with a grad school lifestyle. It’s important to put our own physical and mental well-being first, and simply make time for the things that make us happy. Sleep is one of those things.

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