The tireless pursuit of a good night’s sleep

By Grace Scolyer

If I could make one generalisation about the specific problems with self-care that medical students have, and why our physical and mental wellbeing is so much poorer than the general population, it would be that it all comes down to time.

We have 24 hours a day: depending on the day of the week and your year level, around eight to ten of which will be contact hours, one will be travelling, one will be getting ready, two will be breaks taken for food and coffee, two will be note-taking or preparing for the next day, two to four will be additional study. Leaving four to eight hours. To socialise, watch TV, exercise, meal prep, or scroll through Facebook. And, if we have time, sleep. It’s not always as simple as putting your phone on do not disturb or trying to avoid caffeine after 2pm – it can be ridiculously hard to get a decent night’s sleep.

So what are you going to sacrifice? You could argue that sleep is the natural choice – our interns, HMOs and registrars often get the choice made for them; it’s only a matter of time before it’s our job to be awake when the rest of the world is asleep too. Beyond that, I’m certainly not going to argue that you should avoid your non-medical needs: your friends, your hobbies, your physical health. And who am I to tell you to study less?

All we can do is our best – try not to study into the night when nothing is going in, or scroll through Facebook when we have to be up in five hours.

This is where sleep hygiene comes in. Our time set aside to sleep should be treated as sacred, not to be wasted mulling over the events of the day or the events of tomorrow. A night spend tossing and turning can leave us groggy, grumpy, slow and disoriented, and when night after night we are unable to get a proper rest, vulnerable to burnout and poor mental health.

So, here’s a tried-and-tested list of ways to help you get a proper nights sleep, when we can.

  1. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
  2. If you struggle with feelings of tiredness during the day, try getting sunlight to help reinforce your body clock.
  3. Where possible, try to keep your room dark, quiet, and cool. Keeping your sleep environment as comfortable and relaxing as possible will help you get a good night’s sleep. As well as this, try only using your bedroom for bedroom activities (sleeping and otherwise) – study and watch TV in the living room.
  4. Avoid cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine and unnecessary sleeping pills.
  5. If you are kept up worrying about the events of the day, trying writing down everything on your mind before going to bed, or writing a to-do list for the next day. Bullet journals can help keep your mind uncluttered and peaceful.
  6. Try mediation before bed.
  7. Exercise every day, but not immediately before bed.
  8. Avoid napping.
  9. If you can’t fall asleep within half an hour and you are getting agitated, get up, walk around, have a glass of water and a protein-rich snack, and try again. Try to reduce pressure you are putting on yourself to fall asleep as fast as possible.

If your sleeplessness is affecting your day-to-day functioning, even after trying to implement these tips, talk to your GP – and have a think about anything else that could be causing you stress.

Featured image is El sueño de la razón produce monstruos by Francisco Goya (c. 1799)

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