Sleep: It’s NOT Overrated!

Teens are supposed to get 8 to 10 hours of sleep every night. Yet many feel lucky if they get 5 or 6. After finishing activities and way too much homework, many postpone going to bed so they can catch up with friends and check out their Facebook pages. Then, when you finally turn in, it’s hard to fall asleep with your mind still whirling: “Are all my assignments done?” “Is Megan mad at me?” or “I’ve gotta kill at my tryout tomorrow.” It’s no wonder most teens are sleep deprived.

To do everything, teens often try to ignore or push through their fatigue. Some boost their energy with caffeinated drinks. Others sleep in on weekends. That may help a little, but not much. One good night doesn’t erase a week of lost sleep. Being tired may come to seem normal—and not such a big deal. But here’s how sleep deprivation actually harms health—both physically and mentally:

Diminishes coping. Sleep deprivation makes it harder to cope with emotions. People often feel crankier, more worried, or sadder than usual. Or get into more fights. Without rest, things seem overwhelming. It’s easy to overreact to small, everyday annoyances as if they were huge ordeals. A good night’s sleep is often the key to solving problems.

Undermines learning. Since sleep fuels brainpower, being tired sabotages your efforts to do well in school. For example, too little REM sleep (one of the cycles during the night) interferes with associative learning. That means you can memorize random facts okay, but may have trouble connecting and more deeply understanding information. Also, sleepiness interferes with concentration and causes mistakes. So cheating yourself of sleep to cram for a test usually backfires; you’re better off getting a few extra zzzzzs.

Triggers illness. Ironically, too little sleep causes more stress. When your body is run down, the weakened immune system struggles to fight off illness. Being absent and making up missed work causes you to stay up even later; this is bad because you need sleep to get better. So it becomes a self-defeating, vicious cycle of sleep-deprivation and illness.

Finding a balance of work, play, and rest is challenging. Sadly, there are no magic fixes. But try these techniques—scientifically proven to promote a good night’s sleep—to find what works best for you:

Plan for sleep. Decide on a reasonable bedtime—and stick to it. One hour before, start to slow down and get ready. Use self-control to avoid getting distracted and procrastinating.

Set a routine. To cue your brain to rest, prepare for sleep the same way every night. Create a routine that helps you unwind and settle down. If warm milk at bedtime works, keep doing it. Try listening to soothing music, reading something funny, or cuddling with your pet. Better yet, do these things with the lights dimmed.

Adjust gradually. If your current bedtime is midnight and you want to be dreaming by 10 PM, first aim for 11:45. Every few days, or as soon as you adjust to the new bedtime, start your routine 15 minutes earlier until you can nod off to sleep easily around 10:00.

Use relaxation techniques. If your brain won’t power down, think of a calming scene (like the beach), meditate, or practice yogic breathing. For example, try inhaling slowly and deeply to the count of 4, holding your breath for 4 counts, and then exhaling for 6 counts. Repeat if necessary…

Jot down thoughts. Use a pad and pen on your night table to write it down any worry or idea that pops into your head. Then let it go.

Savor aromatherapy. Perfume your pillow with drops of soothing lavender or soak in a tub with bath oil and Epsom salts.

Resist peeking at your phone. At least one hour before bed stop using all screens. Research shows that looking at the bluish light of computers and other electronics interferes with sleep cycles by increasing alertness and suppressing the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Cover your digital clock, too. Sweet dreams!

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