Sleep Better, Live Better: Improving Sleep Quality Can Lead to Less Stress and Improved Cognition
Baylor sleep expert offers 3 simple ways students can make positive changes that lessen stress through better sleep
WACO, Texas (Oct. 11, 2023) – Research has demonstrated that increased stress and all-night study sessions can lead to lower cognitive functioning and test scores, adding even more pressure on college students. Baylor sleep expert Michael K. Scullin, Ph.D., director of Baylor University’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory and associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, studies how cognitive and behavioral processes are affected by sleep.
“Sleep deprivation makes life worse. And it makes the person not getting enough sleep worse at life,” Scullin said. “However, if we focus on improving our sleep, life will get better, and we will get better at life.”
Poor sleep is particularly common when students are studying for exams or working on major projects for classes. The combination of staying up late, cramming for tests, increased stress and bright light exposure late at night can lead to variable sleep durations and higher stress levels.
“We know that as you accumulate sleep debt, whether it's from a single all-nighter or from weeks of variable sleep durations, it can exacerbate any pre-existing vulnerability a person may have to stress,” Scullin said. “For instance, if someone has a predisposition to panic attack disorder, sleep deprivation can increase panic attacks by about 40%. This applies to virtually any clinical or subclinical condition, whether it’s stress-related or not – sleep deprivation makes it worse.”
Scullin added that even with a slight sleep deficit, any sort of negative event, such as a bad grade on a test, will feel much worse than it would for someone who is well-rested.
“It becomes a cycle, and the individual begins to focus on what is worse instead of calming down at night and getting ready to fall asleep,” Scullin said.
So how can a student – or any individual – break this cycle? It all starts with developing healthy sleep habits, which reduce stress and improve academic performance.
Scullin suggests students try three Challenges to improve their sleep, mood and stress regulation.
1. Illuminate! Challenge
One class activity that Scullin has used with students for years is called the Illuminate! Challenge, which focuses on students adding more natural sunlight to their lives in the morning hours.
“About 90% of students do not know that we need natural sunlight daily in the morning to tell our internal biological clock when to start ticking. When our biological clock knows it's time to start ticking, it will make us feel more alert, which helps improve our mood,” Scullin said.
Specifically, he suggests:
- Spending 20 minutes daily outdoors in natural daylight during the morning hours.
- Be intentional with this time as something aside from walking to class or other daily routines.
- Take the time when you would normally be inside studying or eating breakfast to go outside instead.
“Almost every one of my students who has taken this challenge has said their mood and alertness improved,” Scullin said.
2. Deluminator Challenge
The Deluminator Challenge eliminates light in your bedroom for a night of better sleep. Scullin said this challenge works by:
- Turning off all the lights and counting the number of artificial lights that exist in your environment. How many of your plugs have lights? How much light is coming in through your curtains?
- Cover up every light source (except fire alarms and other safety devices), including any light coming through windows. Blackout curtains are a good investment, or even using blankets to cover windows will help reduce light at night.
- It’s easy to adopt this challenge as it is sustainable once it is set. You will find that you can fall asleep easier and enjoy sleeping later in the morning because of the darker environment.
“What normally happens is students see their devices are emitting unnatural light, and it is not nearly as dark as it should be,” Scullin said. “A lot of students in my classes report that this is their favorite challenge because it led to the biggest impact on sleep quality.”
3. Anti-Rumination Challenge
Lying in bed thinking about everything you need to do the next day can increase stress levels and interrupt sleep. In a recent study, Scullin found that taking five minutes to write a “to-do” list at bedtime helped student participants fall asleep about 10 minutes faster than others who used that time to chronicle completed activities:
- Take five minutes to write down a to-do list of everything that needs to be done the next day.
- The to-do list offloads stress, gives you a good action plan for the next day and helps you feel accomplished as you check off the goals.
When people get more sleep – even just one more hour of sleep per night – “they literally become happier,” Scullin said. That extra hour of sleep can improve social relationships, emotional reactions and cognitive functioning. With improved cognitive functioning comes improved academic performance.
“Adding more sleep to your life makes life better, and it's going to make you better at life. It's going to resolve some of the stress, and you're going to better handle events that are inherently stressful. You're going to enjoy life while you're also taking classes. And you know what? Your grades are probably going to improve.”
ABOUT BAYLOR SLEEP RESEARCHER MICHAEL K. SCULLIN, PH.D.
Michael K. Scullin’s research investigates how sleep physiology impacts memory, cognition and health. He also is interested in how we use memory to fulfill our daily intentions (a special kind of memory called “prospective” memory), including whether reminder apps and other technological solutions can reduce prospective memory difficulties in older age and the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
ABOUT SLEEP NEUROSCIENCE AND COGNITION LABORATORY AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory investigates how cognitive and behavioral processes change across time through two lines of inquiry that often intersect: 1. What are the sleep and circadian-based underpinnings of cognition, health, and human flourishing? 2. Why does cognition change with aging and Alzheimer’s disease, and how can smart technology be leveraged to support prospective memory, longevity and quality of life?
ABOUT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked Research 1 institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 20,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.
ABOUT THE COLLEGE OF ARTS & SCIENCES AT BAYLOR UNIVERSITY
The College of Arts & Sciences is Baylor University’s largest academic division, consisting of 25 academic departments in the sciences, humanities, fine arts and social sciences, as well as 11 academic centers and institutes. The more than 5,000 courses taught in the College span topics from art and theatre to religion, philosophy, sociology and the natural sciences. The College’s undergraduate Unified Core Curriculum, which routinely receives top grades in national assessments, emphasizes a liberal education characterized by critical thinking, communication, civic engagement and Christian commitment. Arts & Sciences faculty conduct research around the world, and research on the undergraduate and graduate level is prevalent throughout all disciplines. Visit the College of Arts & Sciences website.