A few bad nights of sleep in the beginning of freshman year quickly snowballed into chronic insomnia for Ryan Harris '07. He was soon popping sleeping pills and downing alcohol before bed. Often fatigued and dysfunctional, Harris was consumed with worries about not being able to sleep.
Though Harris' case is extreme, a large number of Princeton students have trouble sleeping at some point during their time here, and many suffer from longterm sleeping disorders, reflecting a nationwide trend among college students.
John Kolligian, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at McCosh Health Center, said his impression is that sleeeping disorders are not unusual.
"It's hard to give a percentage but it's one of those fairly common complaints that students come in with," Kolligian said.
Along with Counseling and Psychological Services, students with sleep difficulties can also seek help through Medical Services at McCosh, which deals primarily with short-term problems. But Director of Medical Services Peter Johnsen said he suspects that most students with a problem are not coming in.
According to Kolligian, while treating most sleep-related problems is "routine," regular therapy or medication is sometimes required. When this is the case, Counseling and Psychological Services often refers students to nearby psychiatrists or sleep centers for more fine-grained analysis.
Princeton is not the only campus at which sleeping disorders are prevalent. The McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois recently found that at least two thirds of college students report occasional sleep disturbances, and one third of those suffer from severe sleep difficulties. Greg Eels, the director of Cornell's health services, agrees that poor sleeping habits are common across campuses nationwide.
"There's a clear trend in the direction of more sleeping problems," Eels said. "I think it's getting worse because of increased stress — people are trying to squeeze too much into a day. I do see those pressures increasing, as well as the expectation that you have to do it all."
Stress and anxiety are some of the more common causes of insomnia on campus, according to Kolligian, especially because of the demanding Princeton environment.
"Everyone who is here is a high achiever and is to some degree ambitious," Kolligian said. "There's an intense academic and social realm, and a degree of competitiveness."
He said that when a person with past psychological issues experiences these stresses, the combination often results in a sleep disorder.
Harris believes that sleep disorders are usually mental, since his own sleep problems arose because of self-induced pressure and anxiety.
"When I lay my head on the pillow at night, my brain just started thinking and thinking — it was everywhere," he said.
Harris' sleep was also disrupted by adjusting to college life. Having been originally placed in a double his freshman year, he found he could not fall asleep while his roommate was awake due to his sensitivity to sound.
He requested a single and was granted one, since sleep disorders are a valid justification for special needs housing. This year, there were nine requests on the basis of sleep disorders.
The stress of moving to a new environment is a typical cause of college students' sleep problems. Kolligian said that cases of sleeping disorders are most common among freshmen in the beginning of the year, since this can be an overwhelming time.
"If one happens to be a lighter sleeper, then living in a place where the walls might be thinner and where there's a lot of things going on can mix with a little bit of stress levels being up and can create a problem where there wasn't one before," he said.
He added that these problems usually become resolved as the year goes on, though.
Students also suffer in the transition to college because their normal sleep schedule is thrown off.
"For a lot of students, the whole biological time clock gets changed when you get to college," Johnsen explained. "For some people, that works fine, but for others who are going to have to get up early for class, it becomes disruptive and becomes a downward spiral."
Harris said he was caught up in the vicious cycle of sleep deprivation.
"It's like I needed I good night's rest to have the confidence to fall asleep the next nigh," he said.
Counselors at McCosh try to develop strategies to break this cycle with the student.
"Sometimes it's a matter of doing some relaxation training, meditation or mindfulness, sometimes it's paying attention to caffeine, getting more exercise or establishing a nighttime routine," Kolligian said. "And sometimes, there's a place for medication ... at least to break the cycle."
According to both Kolligian and Johnsen, a concern is that many students with sleeping problems are self-medicating with over-the-counter sleeping aids, which can leave them drowsy the next morning and hinder their daily functioning.
"[Students] take a sleep aid even when simple things would facilitate sleep," he said. "There are a lot of good behavioral techniques to train yourself to get to sleep."
Harris managed to break his cycle of insomnia near the middle of his sophomore year. Similar to what happens with many students, his problems just seemed to go away on their own. Now, he only occasionally has trouble sleeping.
To encourage healthy sleeping habits among students, Kolligan said it would be worth considering a special outreach effort.
"I think we try to focus on wellness and ways to keep a balance, such as eating well, getting exercise and drinking responsibly, so why not emphasize the primacy of sleep?"
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