Psychologists report that sleep is the most neglected factor amongst students studying for exams. Sleep, however, is necessary to do well on exams. The National reports that the UK Sleep Council found over 80% of teenagers in a survey said that their sleep was “affected by stress and pre-exam nerves”. Those teens are recommended by health professionals to sleep between 8 and 10 hours a night, but 20% of teens are sleeping for five or six hours a night. That figure has jumped from 10% previously. Researchers at three universities have studied the correlation between sleep and exam performance. Georgia State University, Harvard University, and the University of California Los Angeles saw researchers all find that students who did not sleep or wake up at consistent times everyday were more likely to report lower grades in school.
It’s important to note that while eight hours of sleep each night may not suit everyone, ensuring that sleep times are regular and patterned is crucial to having healthy sleep habits. Lack of proper sleep can lead to mental health issues, such as panic disorders and depression, or less extreme but still serious issues, like irritability and stress. At 16 hours of being awake, a person has the mental capacity similar to that of a drunken person.
Studying for a lengthy amount of time, usually overnight, also known as “cramming”, can prevent Rapid Eye Movement Sleep, which allows the brain to process learned information and store it in long- term memory. Cramming, quite literally, will lead to lower marks on exams. Scientists have even agreed that napping after studying is more effective than cramming, as a nap (or a full night of rest) allows the brain to store what was studied.
Lack of sleep contributes to these stressors, but not all stressors are bad. Stress can be beneficial, as long as it is the right type of stress. It is the brain’s reaction to a challenge and good stress is manageable. This is why teachers who push for excellence see better outcomes than teachers who are harsh. One of those causes positive anxiety and the other- well, not so much.
Cortisol and adrenaline are both released when humans face acute stress. These hormones help the body control the stressful situation, with cortisol mobilizing glucose for energy and stimulating the immune system, and adrenaline increasing attention. But when that stress goes the wrong way and becomes chronic, like when a lack of sleep for whatever reason contributes to bad grades and further stress, then it can lead to health problems. Obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure are the top three, with an impairing of cognitive abilities also possible.
Cortisol can and does, however, enhance the neurons in the hippocampus of the brain, which helps learning and memory. When studying for an exam, cortisol levels rise. When taking a nap afterwards, the hippocampus gets to work on storing those lessons into long- term memory. When cramming for hours on end and not getting enough sleep, those neurons can shrink. A study done by Dr. Conor Liston at Weill Cornell Medical College found that medical students with greater stress were slower with cognitive functions. Brain scans of these students confirmed that they had less functional connectivity in the prefrontal cortex, which is crucial to critical thinking. A month after the exam, though, those effects had disappeared.
40% of adolescents in 2015 were sleeping for less than seven hours a night. That number was 26% in 1991. This lack of sleep may explain the increased risk that teens are now at for suicidal thoughts, attempts, and deaths. Vanderbilt University published a report in May, showing that from 2008 to 2015, school-aged children and adolescent hospitalizations for suicidal thoughts or attempts more than doubled. Over half of those studied were between ages 15 and 17, with 37% between the ages of 12 and 14, and 13% between the ages of 5 and 11. Another study found 2 in 3 children hospitalized for suicidal thoughts of plans were female, whereas males are more likely to complete a suicide attempt. Suicide is the second leading cause of death after accidental injury for youths aged 10 to 24.
Shows like “13 Reasons Why”, which has been renewed for a third season, amidst backlash, show the dangers that students face in regards to mental health amongst other things. The Netflix show based on the book by the same name chronicles the reasons why a high school student succumbed to suicide. The show offers resources for those who may be struggling, but it’s also important to help those who need it from the start. Parents can instill a sense of self- worth within their children and love them every day, discuss suicide with them, and watch for signs that they may be struggling, including isolation and changes in routines to prevent the same from happening to their family and their child.
While studying and school can contribute to stress- related sleep problems, which can then contribute to mental health issues, it’s important to note that studying too much is what causes those negative effects- and the damaging of eyesight, not a regular and healthy amount of studying. Prepare for exams, whether by using Lean Six Sigma certification courses for the CPA exam, or by reading over the lecture notes in a quiet area, and ensure that the stress of education is manageable. If not, seek out help from a guidance counselor, a teacher, or an online hotline. With the right tools, good grades are possible.