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Sleep, exams and holidays

Sleep, exams and holidays have a difficult and yet very important relationship.

  1. Exams negatively affect sleep, with both anxiety and the brain-racing nature of revision and preparation getting in the way of a good night’s sleep and also with many students pushing their work into the later hours of the evening, because they feel that’s the only way to get it done.
  2. Poor sleep negatively affects exams, not because tiredness makes us function below par (in fact adrenalin is likely to over-ride that on exam day) but because good sleep positively affects learning. When we learn something, the next sleep helps process that learning into long-term memory. Losing sleep reduces the amount of learning benefit.
  3. Holidays can allow us more sleep but can also produce an irregular sleep routine, leading to worse quality of sleep, later nights and later mornings, none of which is ideal.
  4. Holidays are supposed to be relaxing and a rest from work but students who have exams immediately afterwards can find it really difficult to get a balance of rest and study. Counter-pressures may come from parents (“Put your books down now and come and join the family” / “Shouldn’t you be doing some revision?”), friends (when some friends seem to be working harder than you), school (“You need to be super-organised – essential to get rest but also keep your revision on schedule”) and the students themselves, who so often are utterly focused on doing their very best when exams come and honestly don’t need to be pressured any more from anyone else.

I write about sleep quite often – see most recently Positively Teenage – and am up to speed with all the current research, including how the sleep boosts the learning ability of the brain and how to get the best sleep possible. I’m going to be writing about it again at greater length – details soon! – but I’ve decided to write a post to help exam students get the greatest benefits from sleep this Christmas holiday. I’m going to make it succinct because the last thing I want is you to spend a lot of time reading this – I want you to sleep! So I will not load the post with explanations or references: just trust that I do know what I’m talking about and my advice is solid and evidence-based.

Why schools should spend time and funds on stress management and wellbeing skillsTips for the best sleep in your pre-exam holiday

  1. Where possible, have a similar sleep and wake time each day, not deviating by more than an hour.
  2. Aim as close to possible to 8 hours and not less than 7. But don’t worry when you don’t sleep for all of the time you allow.
  3. Always stop your work at least 1.5 hours (ideally 2) before your intended sleep time. Use that time for your winding down routine. (See next point.)
  4. This winding-down routine is crucial – a set pattern of your chosen activities (see Sleep Positives below) at the same time each evening. This triggers your brain to recognise the prelude to sleep and switch you into sleep mode.
  5. Be as strict as possible about avoiding all the Sleep Negatives in the 1.5 – 2 hours before intended sleep.
  6. Build a fun, relaxing activity into every afternoon, something that gives you pleasure and makes you feel good. This can be something active or calming, social or solitary, whichever you feel you need. It will help you achieve the work-sleep-rest balance that a holiday should bring and which you need and deserve. Meeting a friend would be a great idea.
  7. Have some physical exercise earlier in the day – go for a walk, have a snowball fight or build a snowman, kick a ball about or go for a run or swim.

SLEEP POSITIVES

Exercise earlier in the day helps mood and sleep

These can all help during the winding-down period before sleep. Select any you like to create your routine.

  • Put work things away so your desk is tidy and clear and everything looks as organised as possible – and put work out of sight
  • Eliminate all daylight from your room by closing curtains/blinds and switching off all screens (because almost all of them produce the same type of light as daylight)
  • Switch off all screens anyway, because they can bring messages which are likely to make you more alert/awake/excited/emotional – and switching them off helps you stop focusing on the outside world
  • Make a list of things you have to do tomorrow and put the list by your door, not by your bed
  • A light snack if you’re hungry – not sugary
  • A small drink of hot milk or herbal tea – but not too much and not if you tend to get up in the night to go to the toilet
  • A bath or shower
  • Light a scented candle or aromatherapy burner
  • Give yourself a foot or hand pamper – or get someone in your household to do it for you!
  • Practise a breathing exercise
  • Gentle stretches or light yoga
  • Get undressed and washed for bed, and teeth cleaned
  • Slow, soft, gentle music
  • Doodle, draw, write a poem, do a puzzle
  • Read for pleasure once you’re in bed – it’s OK to use an ebook reader as long as the light is set to a night-time setting and messages are disabled. Reading is a brilliant way to wind down for sleep.

SLEEP NEGATIVES

Why we need to stop bingeing on social media, part oneMake every possible effort to avoid these during the two hours before sleep.

  • Caffeine – in coffee, most tea, cola drinks, energy drinks, dark chocolate
  • Heavy food or food with high sugar content
  • Fast, heart-rate-raising exercise
  • Stress, arguments, worry
  • Messages and conversations outside your house (unless you absolutely need this in order to feel relaxed, but be aware that most online or phone conversations have the opposite effect or making you think/feel more
  • Looking at screens – phones, tablets, computers, TV and gaming consoles all typically wake us up because of the light they produce, the moving images and the messages they bring
  • A nap – napping at any point in the evening is a really bad idea. If you feel sleepy, go to bed properly. If it’s way too early to go to bed, get some fresh air or switch activities to something that will wake you up a little, for example chatting to someone face-to-face or tidying your room. If you need a nap in the early afternoon, that’s fine, just not after dark or any time in the evening, as it will disrupt your necessary healthy sleep patterns.

That’s it in a nutshell. But first, there’s something more important: prioritise sleep in your mind. realise that good sleep is healing, restoring, brilliant for your brain and has a positive effect on every aspect of your life, health and wellbeing. We mustn’t panic on those nights when sleep won’t come but if we make every effort to give sleep the best chance, we will do ourselves an enormous favour.

Have a wonderful, peaceful, restful, restorative holiday and enjoy those hours in bed, knowing that they are not a luxury: they are necessary!

See you in the New Year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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