Do you have a hard time allowing yourself to unwind or relax? You certainly aren’t alone. It can feel impossible to step away from an assignment or to take a break after work before you start your next project.
I know because I do this all the time. I prioritize school, exercise and spending time with friends more than sleep, even when I know my body needs it. And if you’re anything like me, then you’ve probably heard over and over how important rest and relaxation are for your health.
And it’s true. Letting yourself relax or sleep when you need to is one of the best things you can do for yourself. Depriving yourself of sleep can decrease brain performance and mood. During sleep, our brain is restoring itself, detoxing and preparing for the next day.
“The value of rest is a lot of things, but number one, healing. Our body doesn’t heal if it hasn't had enough rest,” said Tatyana Stahler, a pilates instructor at Western Washington University.
Stahler is able to read the energy of her class and tailor the practice to the vibe. If her students are exceptionally sleepy, the routine may take a gentler tone than if everyone were feeling a bit jittery.
As students juggling school, work and friends, we have enough to worry about. We don’t need to worry about sleep – or so we tell ourselves. College students across the board are not getting enough sleep, and this lack of rest is evident to our teachers and school counselors.
“It is clear to me that students are not getting enough rest or the type of relaxation that allows both our brains and body to slow down and repair,” said Tonya Pepper, a therapist at Western.
Pepper added that there are many factors that play a role in poor sleep, such as going to bed at different hours, using marijuana to help you fall asleep or energy drinks to stay awake.
“I don’t think the average student is getting as much rest as they could. Somehow, they’re here, though,” Stahler said. “They are there at 8 a.m., ready for the morning.”
Unfortunately, rest and relaxation are likely to be put at the bottom of the priority list when there is school, work or a party. It is so easy to fall into this pattern, because we can sleep later, right?
“I know that whenever I was compromising, the first thing I always compromised was sleep,” Anna Brinkerhoff said. Brinkerhoff is in her last year at Western.
Until recently, Brinkerhoff kept a job throughout school, but she left serving tables for a chance to relax for the next few quarters. She said while taking 17 credits and working, she would sleep less and less, and her mental health would feel the effects.
“The primary value I see driving these choices is being productive,” Pepper said. “Many students feel like their self-worth is wrapped up in how busy they are and how well they perform, and feel guilty or like they are misprioritizing if they choose rest and relaxation over academics or work, and therefore continually put rest off or avoid it entirely.”
I know that I do this and that so many other students do it too. We feel guilty for letting ourselves do anything that we find relaxing or restful — like we should be working on that assignment or reading that chapter instead — whenever we have free time.
But why do we feel so guilty? Well, it could be because it is ingrained in our culture. America praises productivity. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it has led many Americans to feel that stopping work for even an hour is a waste of time.
“Our students come by these habits honestly — Western culture around the world over-values productivity, performance and financial [and] academic success,” Pepper said. “We are now sadly seeing the impacts of this in our U.S. adult health outcomes.”
Another reason why we might feel like we can work through the night is because we are young and able to push our bodies more than, say, our parents. Pepper noted that since many students who put off sleep still produce decent results, the motivation for changing these habits is slim to none.
The good news is you don't have to feel bad about rest and relaxation. We can slowly get rid of that “sleep is for the weak” mentality and start listening to our bodies more. There are small ways to incorporate relaxing techniques or power naps into the day.
“If your sleep schedule is erratic, or you didn’t get enough sleep, include a 10 to 20 minute ‘non-sleep deep rest’ strategy into your day, such as yoga nidra, a body scan meditation, or listening to ASMR,” Pepper said.
She also recommended trying to periodically take 20 seconds to look away from the textbook or computer, relax the muscles in our face and breathe. These “micro-breaks” can actually boost productivity and focus by allowing our brains to briefly reset and process information. It can be as simple as that.
“I know It feels counterintuitive to take time out to rest in our productivity-driven world, but a rested body and mind will be more productive,” Pepper said.
I see now that I am certainly not the only one who feels guilty about taking a nap after not getting enough sleep. It helps to know there are professors and health professionals who take notice of the tired students they see daily.
Hopefully I can start to incorporate some micro-breaks into long study sessions as well as begin to give myself permission to rest when I need to. Taking a nap can be just as productive as doing chores if it means I will be more alert the rest of the day. Don’t punish yourself for needing a break.
Sophie Bechkowiak (she/her) is writing for the opinion beat at The Front this quarter. She is in her fourth year at Western working towards a journalism news/editorial major and a philosophy minor. On her days off she enjoys thrifting, art, watching documentaries and goofing around with friends.
You can reach her at email@example.com.