Sleep and Sensibility: Abolishing Competitive Sleeplessness

As a child, I was convinced the night was infinitely long. I could stay up as long as my body allowed me to and there would still be more night to come. Night was the time for mischief and rare parties with family and gift-wrap scattered everywhere. It only takes one semester at Oxford to realize that even at night time is fleeting and deadlines or test-times race forward nonetheless. The result: rampant sleep deprivation.

The US Library of Medicine of the National Institute of Health reports that over 70% of college students regularly receive less sleep than necessary. At Oxford, I’m sure, this number is considerably higher. But even with hordes of researchers telling us to sleep more, it only takes a handful of professors assigning work for us to stay up all night. In conjunction with Oxford’s leadership culture, the struggle to get enough sleep somehow becomes the center of self-destructive competition.

In My Fair Lady, the advice for efficient small talk is to “keep to two subjects: the weather and everybody’s health”. At Oxford, a third safe bet for easy small talk is sleep deprivation. Walk up to any student and respond to the mandatory “how are you” with “tired”, and after the sullen nods of solidarity you will hear back “well I only slept 2 hours yesterday.” Maybe at this point someone else will join in and counter that they have not slept since September.

These conversations foster competitive sleeplessness and devalue adequate self-care. Students who slept sufficiently are made to feel as if, somehow, they are less studious for not spending 22 waking hours a day studying. If you were not up all night toiling away at some obscure extra math problems you’re labeled as a lazy do-nothing. We look up to those who live off coffee and a certain academic flavor of masochism. Somehow self-care has become a sign of weakness. How did a necessity of life become so trivialized that it and the people who prioritize it are belittled?

Sleep deprivation is often imposed after thinking: well, sleep will do me good in the short-term, whereas studying will turn out to be beneficial for the rest of my life. If I don’t study now, I fail this test, and I never will get that job I’ve always wanted; I will have effectively prioritized 3 hours of nap time over a lifetime of success and happiness. Yet droves of studies show that sleep itself is the key to decent performance on a test. Memory retention and concentration are greatly increased when one has gotten enough sleep. So why not count sleep as a gauge of self-care rather than studiousness?

Between mind and body, the body receives the majority of the care while, at Oxford at least, the mind does the most work. In one of the general body meetings of Open Minds, Oxford College’s mental health club, I was introduced to the concept of mental hygiene. Essentially, just like brushing your teeth and taking regular showers, you should ideally routinely take care of your mental wellbeing. This can take the form of recognizing your strengths and accomplishments when you feel down, taking a moment to wander about the woods when you feel stressed, or allowing yourself a raw and dirty cry.

One of the easiest mental hygiene practices to undertake is napping when you can to clear your headspace and refresh your thinking. Just like with physical hygiene, preventative measures can also significantly help in mental hygiene. Good scheduling prevents more stress than necessary. Scheduling rigid hours to work with no distractions prevents the mentality that all the work will get done, just not right now. Small study groups with prescheduled meeting times hinder habitual procrastination by making time-management a group activity.

One of my favorite Greek myths tells of a lumberjack who is furiously hacking away at a tree with a dull axe. A stranger walks by and asks why he doesn’t stop for a minute and sharpens his axe so he can accomplish the job more easily. The lumberjack replies, mid-striking the tree, that he’s too busy chopping down the tree to go sharpen his axe, and could the stranger not see that there was no time for such trivial chores as sharpening his axe. The absurdism of the situation is evident in the myth, yet that same judgement is rarely applied to mental health on campus.

Can we as a community start reframing self-care as a productive and beneficial pursuit rather than lazy downtime? And when those all-nighters do occur –as they are bound to in an environment as high-pressure as Oxford—we can stand in solidarity of each other’s struggle, rather than as contestants of some machismo and masochistic game.

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