Mental Mettle and Musings: the continual clash of sleep vs. stress

by Arhana Aatresh (’23) | November 19, 2021

Art by Sofia Ruiz (’22)

Most students on campus would argue that sleep is overrated, and their concerning lack of sleep certainly proves that they are willing to sacrifice it. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a battle between students and their sleep schedules; with increased screen time and a lack of structured routines, adjusting to a rigorous school regimen has been a continuous struggle. In order to cope, high schoolers have compromised sleep first; while most are familiar with the physical and mental effects of sleep deprivation as they drag themselves through the exhaustion of their day, there are many unseen causes of decreased sleep quality.

Many adolescents and adults have reported strange, disjointed dreams due to the pandemic. As originally reported by The New York Times, Dr. Sabra Abbott, a Northwestern University assistant professor of neurology in sleep medicine, stated, “Over the past year, we’ve had the perfect storm of every possible bad thing that you can do for your sleep.” Traumatic events have been linked to more vivid, intense dreams, such as first responders’ dreams after the 9/11 attacks. 

According to a study published in the Journal of Sleep Research, the pandemic may influence the topics of our nightmares. Those with more pandemic-related stress have a higher chance of experiencing nightmares related to loss and destruction; of the surveyed population, 86% reported a general increase in stress, and 61% reported worsened sleep during the pandemic. 

The study explained that disruptions to our body’s circadian rhythm, or the 24-hour cycle that regulates sleep periods and maintains homeostasis, negatively impact our sleep. Because people are spending more time indoors even after lockdowns have been lifted and are thus limiting their exposure to the key rhythm stimuli of light, their rhythms may be temporarily altered. As the flux in circadian rhythms is directly correlated with variations in dreams and nightmares, it comes as no surprise that the pandemic has induced more vivid nightmares related to pandemic-specific worries.

One way to combat the effects of stress on sleep is to maintain a regular sleep schedule. However, students struggle with this seemingly straightforward task due to the end of daylight savings disrupting schedules and increased workloads encroaching on precious hours of the day. Even if students are sleeping the same amount, their circadian rhythms are altered by the time change. Fortunately, because students wake up in more light than usual during standard time, the effects are not nearly as drastic as the start of daylight savings in March, when waking up in the dark creates more of a disconnect between light and circadian rhythms. 

Light suppresses the secretion of the neurotransmitter melatonin; waking up at a different time due to a different amount of melatonin in the body, whether it be in March or November, can cause mood changes in students. While compromising sleep for a few more moments of studying is tempting, sleep significantly influences mood and focus; knowledge alone will not enhance test performance if one is in a sour mood without focus. 

Fortunately, certain restorative practices can relieve the effects of stress on sleep. For example, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a convenient method to target sleep blockers. This self-administered therapy involves changing one’s behavior. Dr. Ilene M. Rosen, a sleep medicine doctor and associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, suggests physically throwing away worries: “If most of what you’ve written down is stuff that you’re worried about, then crumple up the paper and throw it in the trash—that’s called discharging your thoughts.” Another example of CBT is shifting one’s mindset to associate a bed with peace and rest, which is incredibly effective in achieving stress-free sleep. Sleeping without as much stress is proven to recharge the body more effectively.

If you need help, visit to find a local sleep physician and receive the care you need. Sleep simply cannot be replaced and is even more important in times of transition. Coping mechanisms can alleviate the disharmony that sleep deprivation causes, but targeting the causes of low quality sleep is a more powerful solution.

Categories: Column, Science

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