A Greater College Debt

An Outreach Project by Matthew Ashton | Return To All Outreach Projects

Every new term in the college year is overloaded with new courses, changes in majors, more frat parties, boring professors, and the dreaded college loans. Financial debt from college in American is without a doubt, devastatingly high. In 2009 the average debt accumulated by graduating college seniors has risen to approximately $23,200.

However, there is one form of debt that is often overlooked, misunderstood and/or forgotten: sleep debt. Sleep debt is the accumulation of reoccurring instances where an individual does not get the amount of sleep that his/her body requires each night. Now, as expected, one would think that sleep debt only effects how sleepy an individual is during the day or how hard that individual sleeps at night, but sleep debt affects many more human functions that are essential to everyday life.

Professor William C. Dement, founder of the Sleep Research Center and professor of the popular Sleep and Dreams class at Stanford University, knows best about the effects of sleep debt. "The larger the sleep debt, the greater the negative impact on every aspect of the college student's waking life." Sleep debt affects everything from simple human performance to one's mood. As sleep debt increases, performance slows and errors increase. As previously stated, an individual's mood is negatively affected by significant sleep debt. Emotions tend to become more unstable with sleep loss with various reactions such as uncontrollable laughter, crying, and depression as a result depending on the individual. As sleep debt increases, tendencies of happiness and optimism diminish.

We can think of sleep debt like a growing weight over us that we have to carry around throughout the day. Unless paid back, the debt gets bigger and bigger while we're awake until...SQUASH!!! We're asleep!

I was fortunate to interview fellow Stanford students who have taken Dr. Dement's Sleep and Dreams course in the past years that the course has been offered. Alexandra Hunter, a sophomore, has seen significant changes in her sleeping habits since making the transition from high school to college. "I used to go to sleep around 10 back in high school. Now I've probably gone to sleep around 10 one or two times, and it's my sophomore year." Hunter also addresses how sleep debt affects her overall academic performance. "I have a 9 AM morning class and have gone about three or four times in the past three weeks. I wake up to my alarm; it's just hard to find the energy to get my day started so early." Kiana Abram, sophomore, claims that because her sleep debt is so large, she has trouble going to early morning classes throughout the week. Abram states," I have an extremely hard time even waking up to my alarm in the morning."

The most effective way to reverse the effects of a large sleep debt is extra sleep. If a student has accumulated a large sleep debt the symptoms of sleep loss with persist unless the student sleeps more than the daily need for sleep continually until his/her sleep debt is significantly reduced. Napping is a great way to lower one's sleep debt as well as increase overall performance. Strategically setting times to nap during the day increases alertness, performance, and an individual's tendency to sleep decreases.

I took the liberty of asking some of my peers what changes they should make to their schedules in order to get more sleep daily. Hunter believes, "I think using my time more wisely during the day would help me get more sleep. I wait until the last minute (nighttime) to get a lot of stuff done, which is a problem, because I'm much sleepier and less likely to stay awake at night." I've witnessed many school mates behave in the same manner; procrastinating until late hours at night before beginning assignments which are due the next morning. It is possible that better time management, planning, and possibly a nap would not only prevent situations like these but also improve performance of such assignments.

In essence, although significant sleep debt creates multiple negative situations for college students, the best way to handle sleep debt is to prevent it from getting out of control altogether. Dr. Dement has coined the phrase "Drowsiness is Red Alert!" which means that when a person feels drowsy in the least bit, it's a definite sign of sleep deprivation and that person should get rest immediately. Staying awake when drowsy creates a larger probability that a person will not match the amount of sleep you need that night and will thus add to his/her sleep debt. Abram states, "If you don't get sleep, it really affects your performance and productivity negatively and you don't get as much work done as you could if you are well-rested." Productivity should be a high priority, especially for college students and they should get as much needed sleep as possible. Hunter, who has witnessed the effects of severe sleep debt herself, concurs, "A lot of young people underestimate the necessity of sleep. It may seem 'uncool' to go to sleep early, but it actually helps you in the long run. More sleep means that you're able to use the time you're awake more effectively."

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About This Site

Welcome! This site is continuously being created by students of Dr. William C. Dement's Sleep And Dreams course at Stanford University.

We made this site as a call to action for people all over the world to live healthier, happier, safer, and more productive lives by learning about their own sleep. We have faith that reading the information provided on this site will motivate you to be smart about your sleep deprivation and strategic about your alertness in order to live life to your fullest, most energetic potential.

In fact, we challenge you to do so! What do you say, are you up for the challenge?

The Stanford Sleep Book

Stanford Sleep Book Picture

Dr. Dement's pioneering textbook has been the core text for Sleep and Dreams since 1980, but it has just recently been made available to the wider public for the first time.

In it you'll find a more detailed account of the most important things you need to know about sleep, alertness, dreams, and sleep disorders. Studies, statistics, plus plenty of Dr. Dement's classic anecdotes painting the history of sleep medicine.

Preface | Intro | Contents | Get A Copy

More Sleep Resources

The Zeo

A revolution in personal sleep tracking, the Zeo is a wireless headband that transmits your brainwaves in realtime to a dock (pictured here) or your smartphone. The result? You can wake up and see exactly what stages of sleep you were in during the night! Unprecedented personalized sleep knowledge.

Sleep Paralysis: A Dreamer's Guide

Sleep Paralysis Treatment Book

Ever woken up paralyzed? A surprising number of us have, believe it or not. But few know the actual causes of this phenomenon, and fewer still how to exert control over it. Dream researcher and sleep paralysis expert Ryan Hurd shares breakthrough insights into how to do just that.

Important Disclaimer

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The information found on this page and throughout this site is intended for general information purposes only. While it may prove useful and empowering, it is NOT intended as a substitute for the expertise and judgments of healthcare practitioners.

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