Karen Hua: I can sleep when I'm dead

By Karen Hua, Columnist
Published March 30, 2015

When I started college last year, I averaged about five hours of sleep a night. As the year progressed, my alarm clock chirped an hour earlier. Four hours of sleep definitely wasn’t something I enjoyed, but it was a routine necessity, just like everything else on my to-do list. I enlisted it as another adjustment made toward “maturing.” College meant being career-driven with lofty ambitions for success among a competitive pool of peers — so naturally, sleep-deprived, right?

Unfortunately, after a few months, the human body realizes it cannot physically operate with so little rest. No phone can go without a recharge. No road trip can happen without a pit stop, and inconveniently, the body will eventually demand sleep or otherwise shut down.

This year, I remember setting an alarm for an 8 p.m. power nap, then awaking disoriented at 7 a.m. the next morning. My roommate and I consistently sleep through both our alarms, leaving us frantic and hurried in the mornings before class. The problem is, I’m certain I’m not the only one with these experiences. One peek into any library on any day indicates the sheer abundance of students working from the moment they wake up until the time they fall asleep on top of their books.

Time has become most college students’ most valuable possession. Personally, I feel the need to take advantage of all the University offers while I’m already paying upwards of $50,000 each year. However, what started as getting the most “bang for my buck,” transpired into a personal desire, a competitive urge to do everything — to stay in good academic standing, to have a job, to learn money management, to maintain a social life, to lead extracurricular clubs and more and more.

According to a recent Michigan Daily survey, 63 percent of students participate in clubs at least once a week. Instead of striving to balance our busy lives with good health, we have instead redefined “balance” to mean all-inclusive involvement. College has turned us into workaholics.

Essentially, we forgo sleep completely or prioritize it at the bottom of our lists, viewing it as more of a hindrance to productivity rather than a human necessity. We tell ourselves to “suck it up” when we feel burnout approaching to suppress and endure onwards. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?

In class, our professors point out how we all look exhausted with droopy eyelids in the middle of the day, berating us to sleep at least eight hours a day. Unfortunately, we have heard this suggestion time and time again. Yet we’re never galvanized to change our lifestyle, even when we’ve experienced some of the malignant consequences.

As a result, many students resort to caffeine-dependent lifestyles fueled by coffee, soda, energy drinks and even attention-enhancing drugs. Adderall and Ritalin are two of the most common drugs sold on the college “black market,” used most commonly for academic rather than recreational purposes. When I surveyed a psychology discussion, 90 percent of the class raised their hand, admitting they knew at least one person who bought those drugs without a prescription to more effectively complete their work.

Last spring, the University’s Central Student Government introduced a pilot phase of napping stations at the Undergraduate Library because 96 percent of 500 survey respondents felt fatigue was disrupting their performance. In addition to this, there have been few initiatives to actively decrease or temporarily ameliorate sleep deprivation, and only a string of elusive online tips to improve sleep quality. Daily columnist Jenny Wang also wrote about a burn-out the week before spring break, where she humbly asked professors for reasonably manageable academic loads.

However, the crux of the issue is not solely from schoolwork, like the CSG initiative and Wang’s article may suggest. Naps and lighter coursework cannot remedy the situation long-term. Rather, our sleep deprivation stems from our academic objectives paired with the work outside of class that we voluntarily take on (and persuade ourselves we need for a complete college experience). Deprioritizing sleep has been increasingly cultivated and perpetuated by our scholarly, success-hungry society so that the workaholic attitude is no longer simply a cultural factor, but now inherent within ourselves. Sleep deprivation is more a product of our mentalities.

We have already read the correlative studies and heard the statistics time and time again detailing the relationship between sleep, memory processing and academic performance. We also don’t need to know that 73 percent of college students have sleep issues; we already know that it’s some astoundingly high number, so the specifics that almost three-fourths of this campus feels exhausted during the day isn’t a shocker.

Additionally, just 11 percent report good sleep — far too small a fraction especially since we know how closely sleep is related to academic performance. More specifically, according to Shelley Hershner and Ronald Chervin’s study relating college students to sleep, rising just one hour earlier decreases student GPAs by an average of 0.132 out of 4.0 points.

You don’t need me to rattle off all the pernicious consequences, like your teachers and parents have done too many times before, but it’s clear that we are only shooting ourselves at our shoes. At our age, we have surpassed ignorance. Yet, we ironically continue to deprive ourselves of the necessity of sleep. Our motivation for consistently harming our bodies in this way can only be attributed to our rigid mentalities, programmed by the anxiety of ambition or the fear of inadequacy.

Each year, countless scientific and psychological studies are conducted about sleep deprivation, only strengthening the same conclusions citing its degree of detriment. Regardless of the statistics from research, advice from University Health Services and pleas from professors to better “balance” our schedules and get more rest, our mentalities are not so simply altered. Old habits die hard, or not at all.

From an evolutionary standpoint, will we, as humans, gradually require less sleep in the future? Will we drive ourselves to work all the time that we’ll physically require less rest to refuel? As we have seen, we turn a blind eye or a helpless shrug regardless of our education and awareness about the subject. So, as a collective, competitive culture and individually as insatiable students, what will it take to change our minds?

Karen Hau can be reached at khua@umich.edu.