Ticket to a Better Night’s Sleep


By Devon Stoeber

“Nights when I can’t fall asleep typically end with me laying in bed for hours on my phone or tossing and turning,” senior Taryn Varnes said. “Every hour I’m in bed still awake I find myself counting the hours I could sleep if I went to bed in that moment.”

Varnes is not alone when it comes to struggling to fall asleep and even getting up the next morning without getting a wink of sleep. In fact, many teenagers have trouble falling asleep, no matter how much they wish they were able to. When it gets to the point where someone can no longer fall asleep or stay asleep as long as needed it can become a health hazard. The frustration of being unable to fall asleep can make the problem even worse.

“[Patients who have insomnia] wake up and become so angry, frustrated and aroused that they can’t fall asleep,” said Dr. Meir H. Kryger, a professor at Yale, in an interview with the New York Times.

The average teenager needs about nine hours of sleep each night according to the National Sleep Foundation. A study they conducted found that only 15% of teenagers reported getting eight and a half hours of sleep a night. They also found that teens tend to have irregular sleep patterns across the week and they usually stay up late and sleep in late on the weekends. Although a lack of sleep is common among teenagers, it is still harmful to their bodies. Without getting enough sleep teens lose the ability to focus and process information.

Varnes explained that she feels distant after a night of little sleep. “When it persists, I almost lose touch with reality and almost feel like I’m in a dream,” Varnes said.

In the long run, the less someone sleeps, the less they benefit from the memory-storing properties of sleep, which could result in permanent memory issues. Lack of sleep can have even greater risks. For example, a study from 2012 by the National Institute of Diabetes and and Digestive and Kidney Diseases found that the shortest sleepers also had the highest insulin resistance, meaning the body was not using insulin effectively, which increases the risk of diabetes. TIME reported that people with very poor sleeping habits seem to die younger of any cause than people who sleep about six and a half to seven and a half hours a night.

Aside from the physical repercussions of not getting enough sleep, extreme sleep deprivation can also begin to harm mental and emotional health.

“[Teens who don’t sleep] tend to get depressed easier,” Tam counselor Evelyn Dorsett said. “I think being tired stops people from thinking clearly, [they’re] more teary about things, get mad faster, more fights with their parents. They feel more irritable because they just aren’t getting enough rest.”

There are various possible causes of restless nights among teens. For some students, the situation is more serious than just a lot to do or a racing mind when trying to fall asleep. The inability to fall asleep is a common medical problem among teenagers known as insomnia.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM)  there is both temporary insomnia and insomnia that last more than three weeks, or chronic insomnia. Varnes was diagnosed with insomnia by her doctor in summer of 2013. The AASM has a list of questions that allow people to test themselves for insomnia. The questions include: Do you wake up during the night and find that you can not fall back asleep? Do you dread going to bed because you feel like you never get a good night’s sleep? Do you wake up feeling unrefreshed after sleeping? And does the problem occur even though you have the opportunity and the time to get a good night’s sleep?

The AASM recommends keeping a sleep diary, meaning writing down when you go to sleep, when you wake up and how well of a night’s rest you got, as a way to determine the state of your condition and how to treat it.

“When someone says, ‘I lay in bed, I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep, I can’t sleep,’ then you want to look [deeper] at why that’s happening.” Dorsett said. “[As counselors,] we would say talk to your parents and it’s always good to start with a doctor and talk about it. Some people will develop sleep disorders, so sometimes it requires an element of counseling to deal with it, and sometimes it is physiological [such as sleep apnea or sleepwalking] so it needs medical attention.”

However, when dealing with temporary insomnia, discovering what is keeping someone up is the most important factor in treating your condition.

“Ever since I’ve been at Tam, we’ve always dealt with the fact that people stay up late and don’t get any sleep,” Dorsett said. “I think it’s cyclical. We expect it around finals, end of grading periods, when someone’s in a big drama production, or someone is in an extended sports schedule. [These people] are going to have sleepless nights because those commitments become overwhelming in addition to studying and getting things done.”

According to the AASM, both types of insomnia are most commonly connected to external factors, and insomnia that is not caused or worsened by something else is very rare. The most common factor is stress. When students pile too much on their plates, it can become overwhelming and sleeping can become a lower priority than it medically should be.

“Thinking about the homework or studying I could have been doing only worsens the insomnia making it even harder to fall asleep,” Varnes said.

Teenagers often have many extra-curricular commitments, as well as their schoolwork, which can heighten the problem.

“[When I had a job] I would get home from work around 10-ish and then I’d have to shower and then start my homework, which could take up to 3 hours,” senior Tatum Robach said. “So I wouldn’t be getting in bed until 12 or 1 and then I have to wake up at 6:15.”

Although to some students it may feel like they must stay awake to study for that test the next day, according to Dorsett, it is often a better decision to call it a night.

“You can’t avoid staying up [until] midnight sometimes when you’ve got to study and you’re tired and you’re worn out,” Dorsett said. “But you should never be in so many classes that you’re up [until] two or three in the morning. None of the teachers here want anybody to do that.”

Whatever the issue may be, according to Dorsett, it is important to remember that getting enough sleep is an important aspect of staying healthy, especially for teenagers who are still developing and growing. The National Blood, Heart and Lung Institute offers many simple ways to help fight insomnia. They recommend changes to a person’s lifestyle as the first solution. These changes include: creating bedtime habits and rituals that allow your body to relax and prepare for bed such as reading a book, listening to soothing music, or taking a bath, schedule your daily exercise five to six hours before you plan to go to sleep, keep your room “sleep-friendly,” meaning it is dark and the temperature is comfortably cool, and lastly, go to sleep around the same time every night and wake up around the same time every morning.