Sometimes, before I go to bed, I like to take a walk.
I slowly meander through the many pathways within Columbia’s gates in their most quiet moments—crisp air stains my chapped face, dim lights coat faded walkway pebbles, and, for once, campus feels still. In this lonely darkness that I share with many others, I find calm. Occasionally, I look up to the sky and remember that the moon is not always full. And maybe, on those nights when stars shine through the clouds, feeling close enough for fingertips to graze, my mind, too, rests.
More often, my mind feels the most loud in nighttime’s contrived silence. Sleep for me isn’t a simple endeavor—I’ve had insomnia, at varying degrees of intensity, since high school. I’m a light sleeper and wake up many, many times throughout the night. When I’m feeling particularly anxious, or particularly anything, to be honest, it takes me a very long time to fall asleep. This is also true for many others on campus, in even more extreme manifestations. I took some of them on nighttime walks with me.
Sleep deprivation pervades Columbia like thick morning fog. We have the latest weekday bedtime and get the third least weekday hours of nighttime sleep in the country, according to a 2016 study. A Red Bull-guzzling, all-nighter-pulling college student with tousled hair and heavy eyes emerges from Butler just before the sunrise—these are the stories we hear.
Many of us on campus, though, cannot sleep even when we try.
...In, two, three, four, five, six, seven
When I was younger and couldn’t fall asleep, my mother would tell me to be a cooked noodle. Let each part of your body go, she’d say. Uncurl your toes, relax your ankles, untense your thighs, your shoulders, your fingers, your heart. I wasn’t very good at this.
Now, she just tells me to breathe.
Shutting my eyelids, I feel warmth spread through my cheeks. My body is heavy, weighing down into the mattress, and lightening up, too. I hope my breath will wash over my mind. I’m wearing earplugs, wedged in tightly—in this darkness and silence, my little breath is loud like a crashing wave.
For many with sleep disorders on campus, anxiety and stress, especially that which naturally accompanies college life, can exacerbate their condition.
David Shan, a junior in Columbia College studying neuroscience, also uses breathing exercises when he cannot sleep. We sit in a nearly empty Butler Blue Java Café late one Friday night. He has not been clinically diagnosed with insomnia, but often faces intense sleeplessness from anxiety or excitement—before an exam or a frisbee tournament, for instance. Shan also takes prescribed Ritalin for his ADD, a side effect of which is insomnia.
Tonight is an example of a sleepless night, he says. He has a frisbee tournament tomorrow, and will have to wake up around 5 a.m. On these nights, he usually gets around an hour of sleep. “I rarely have tournaments where I feel well-rested,” Shan tells me.
For many, sleep disorders can build upon and reinforce one another. Celeste McFarlane, a first-year in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, joins me on a campus walk. It is one of fall’s first cold nights, but neither of us is bothered. I’ve resolved that the cold is always more pleasant in the dark. McFarlane has been sleepwalking and sleep-talking since they were a child. Their sleepwalking episodes began to escalate in high school, when they experienced night terrors and insomnia.
“I got to the point where if I was tired I just couldn’t sleep,” McFarlane reflects. In addition, their parasomnias—sleepwalking, sleep-talking, sleep eating—made them afraid to fall asleep. By their senior year of high school, it escalated to the point where they decided to take a gap year, partially due to these sleep disorders. A sleep study revealed that they were in Rapid Eye Movementsleep—the last stage of the sleep cycle, critical to memory consolidation, learning, and mood—for only 7 percent of the night.
“The average person needs eight hours of sleep. I need something greater than 24 hours, so there’s not enough time in the day,” they explain. “Even when I do sleep, I’m still exhausted.”
The transition from high school to college exacerbated their symptoms. Many others I spoke to feel the same way—college is, for many, an anxiety-inducing environment, which can worsen symptoms of sleep disorders.
For Julia Multedo, a Barnard junior graduating in 2018, sporadic sleeplessness became chronic after she graduated high school in December 2014. Because she’s from Brazil, her high school graduation date meant she had nine months before college began. During those months, her high school insomnia intensified as a result of her lack of routine.
In addition, Multedo developed sleep paralysis—when she’d wake up, she would be stuck. “I couldn’t move,” she describes. “It was really scary. I’d immediately wake up and feel like I was about to have a heart attack or something.” She, too, feels that college worsened her condition at first, although it’s improved over the course of the last couple of years. Multedo’s various sleep conditions play into one another—she says that the main cause of her insomnia is this fear of paralysis, though she’s learned “little ways to avoid it.”
“Usually I get insomnia when I’m super anxious about something,” she says. “I just won’t be able to sleep, or if I do sleep, I wake up all the time.” This happens almost every night.
Ari Shechter, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology at Barnard, explains that insomnia has a significant psychological component. He says that this is why cognitive behavioral therapy—which teaches techniques for addressing the causes of sleep disorders—is one of the most effective treatments for insomnia. I speak with Shechter in his office on Columbia University Medical Center’s campus, where he is also a researcher at the Center for Behavioral Cardiovascular Health, focusing on how sleep disruption affects cardio-metabolic outcomes. Which is to say, he knows a lot more about sleep than I do.
According to Shechter, when people are anxious or in a state of hyperarousal, their body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and brain activities increase. “These are physiological changes that can contribute to insomnia that can make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep,” he says.
Given the biological dimension of sleep, at the end of our conversation, I ask Shan if being a neuroscience major and knowing the intricacies of the brain makes his inability to sleep all the more frustrating. His knowledge doesn’t bother or help him, he replies. He’ll tell himself, “Oh, my brain’s too hyperactive,” but how to change that is “still a very difficult issue.”
“You can’t escape the brain,” he concludes. I tell him that’s a very good line, and he laughs.
Hold, two, three, four
This is the moment when I remember that my heart beats. I feel it thump gently against a clutched chest—everything inside of me steadies into its echo. It’s astounding just how subtle a heartbeat can be: Cold drizzle scatters my window, a clock’s lagging tick tock tick tock—it’s 3:15 a.m. now. Well, fuck.
I ask Shechter what a college student with insomnia can tangibly do to get better sleep while still attending to academic responsibilities. Shutting off our computers hours before bed, avoiding caffeine, minimizing stress—these often feel unfeasible in an intense college environment.
Schechter has one conclusive message: “Avoid the blue light.”
He notes that blue light is everywhere, pointing up to the bright light above us. His office is lit by fluorescent hospital light, which clashes against a dark window, a post-daylight savings illusion of night time at 5 p.m. His lab just published findings that wearing sunglasses with amber lenses for two hours before bed to block out blue-wavelength light improves sleep, compared to wearing clear lenses. The severity of participants’ insomnia decreased, and the duration and quality of their sleep went up.
I have f.lux on my computer and Night Shift on my phone, which make the screens turn more orange at night.
Multedo, meanwhile, says her mom bought her orange goggles. “They look like orange lab goggles, so I was like, ‘I’m not going to wear these in Butler,’” she laughs.
Shechter offers two pieces of advice to those who suffer from insomnia. “If you’re waking up and you’re not able to fall asleep, get out of bed,” he suggests. “You don’t want to associate that state of being awake and not being able to fall asleep with your bed,” he says.
Similarly, Shechter says it’s important that students not do other activities, like homework, eating, or watching TV, on their beds: “Just use your bed for sleep.”
I do neither.
Multedo journals when she can’t sleep. She gets up and lists everything she has to do in the following days. “Even if I don’t actually follow it later—which I usually don’t,” she laughs. She also works around her insomnia, getting most of her work done between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.
For Jane Tang, a junior in Columbia College studying East Asian Studies, falling asleep is not the problem. Rather, Tang wakes up very early—2 a.m., 3 a.m., sometimes 5 a.m.—and cannot fall back asleep. To pass the time, she might do homework or laundry.
But for many of the students I spoke to, medication is another solution to combat the effects of their sleep disorders.
Ayah Hassan, a senior in SEAS, has narcolepsy—which affects regulation of sleep cycles—as the result of a head injury she received her senior year of high school. During her first year at Columbia, her medicine stopped working.
“It’s been really hard trying to find what works,” she says, noting that every few months she has to adjust her medication. She speaks slowly and softly as we sit in her dimly lit suite lounge, where colorful tissue paper flowers decorate the walls. It’s taken four years, she says, to find a balance.
Hassan’s narcolepsy makes it so that she’s always tired. Unless she takes her medication, for which she has to set a specific alarm, two hours before her actual alarm for getting up, she could have a cataplectic attack or fall asleep at any moment. She leans back on the sofa she sits on in demonstration.
For some, while medication is a necessity, it can also elicit problems of its own. McFarlane and I have paused our walk on the pedestrian bridge over Amsterdam Avenue, in front of the Law School Library. Beams of light trace far into the horizon, enveloped by the shadows of a sleeping Amsterdam. McFarlane sometimes takes sleep medication when they can’t sleep, which they say knocks them out. “Sometimes I sleep through social activities or I sleep through classes,” they say. “It’s either I don’t sleep at all, or I have to get sleep somehow.”
Some, however, are more averse to medication. Multedo tells me she’s “not a fan of taking medication for stuff” but will occasionally take Benadryl to fall asleep.
Many times, the solutions we’re given aren’t quite conducive to a college student’s routine.
Lila Davanchi, a professor of psychology at Columbia who studies memory and its relation to sleep, advises caution with caffeine. “Caffeine and alcohol are terrible for sleep,” she relates, “which is very sad.”
I ask Shechter how someone with insomnia, like me, should approach caffeine. He suggests limiting consumption of caffeine in the afternoon. It contributes to physiological arousal, which can “feed into the bad sleep cycle.” However, he notes that some caffeine in the morning “shouldn’t affect the sleep too much at night.”
I’ve noticed that at pauses, Shechter takes a sip of coffee from a silver travel mug. He’s about to teach a class, he says, and needs to maintain his caffeine levels. It seems the sky, especially in this time of year, likes to go to sleep before the rest of us.
Out, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight...
Breathing is a cyclical phenomenon. So is a heartbeat. So is anxiety. I’m not quite sure what I should be letting go of at the release—not quite sure what I’m worried about, or if I’m worried at all. As I breathe out, my heart begins to pound fast, a fish flailing against dry sand. Tomorrow I have an 8:10 a.m. seminar, and after that, a 10:10 a.m. seminar, and then work, and, then, maybe, I can squeeze in a nap, but maybe not, and all I can think of are the red digits that float in the darkness, reminding me how many more hours-minutes-seconds I have left until my alarm rings.
For students with sleep disorders, the effects of exhaustion continue to significantly affect their college experiences.
Hassan, for instance, describes the impacts on the “social aspect” of college. “I need a lot of sleep,” she explains, and often her medicine that is meant to help her stay awake wears off by 11 p.m. or midnight. Sometimes, she has to cancel plans because she’s not feeling well. Sometimes, she feels too tired to even walk to her floor elevator.
Many also feel that their sleep disorders negatively affect their academics. Many of Hassan’s classes for her major, chemical engineering, were at 8:40 a.m.—even if she were to go to sleep early, she says, she often couldn’t wake up with her alarm. She also mentions difficulties with early-morning group project meetings.
If Hassan forces herself to wake up abruptly, it “induces a sleep paralysis episode,” or a cataplectic attack. “It was a battle every single day, so I wasn’t going to class, and sometimes, I miss exams—when I’m under stress it makes it a lot worse; it is this never-ending cycle,” she says.
Tang is taking a light course load this semester to focus on addressing her insomnia. She says she’s never spoken to a professor about her situation. “I’ll turn in things late or miss a couple of days of class,” she says, but won’t say anything about it. She hasn’t been diagnosed officially—“Well, by a Chinese medicine doctor, but that’s not recognized in America.” We walk along College Walk beneath the trees, which have just been draped in Christmas lights.
“Insomnia is not something that you can tell your professor [about],” Multedo says. “It’s hard to take an exam when you literally feel like your head’s about to explode from sleep deprivation.”
McFarlane explains that in addition to the impacts of exhaustion, a side effect of waking up from a night terror is disorientation. Once, this meant they were unable to go to class to turn in an assignment. McFarlane told their professor they weren’t feeling well, “because what else are you supposed to say?”
“A lot of times professors can be really understanding, in my experience,” McFarlane notes. When they missed the assignment, they didn’t tell the professor exactly why, but their professor was still understanding. “I feel like I shouldn’t have to.”
To help students whose academics are negatively impacted by their sleep disorders, Columbia and Barnard offer support through their respective offices of Disability Services. McFarlane says that through Columbia Health’s Disability Services, they’re able to live in a single dorm. Hassan uses ODS for her exams, moving them when necessary, which she says is for the most part helpful, though sometimes frustratingly tedious. Meanwhile, Counseling and Psychological Services and The Rosemary Furman Counseling Center at Barnard offer psychological services to students with sleep disorders.
Further, Barnard’s Health Services website offers advice to student with “Sleep Troubles.” The website recommends that if I’m feeling anxious or worried, I should “Take a deep breath… Exhale.” I’ll try again.
But the impact of sleeplessness on the academic experience extends beyond the classroom to the body. Davanchi recently conducted an experiment looking at the ways in which sleep promotes the stabilization of memory. “No one really knows why we sleep,” she laughs. “But we do know that if you don’t sleep, you will die.”
She can, however, confirm that sleep is critical to consolidation of memory. “If you are not getting a healthy night’s sleep,” she says, “[you are] putting yourself at a slight disadvantage in terms of being able to retain as much as possible from day to day.”
Davanchi says napping can be helpful for sleep-deprived students, especially in its benefits for memory. For instance, if you are trying to memorize a list of words or foreign language vocabulary, sleeping after studying improves memory retention.
Tang tells me she takes one, maybe two naps a day. I am a big fan of naps, I admit. I try to take one almost daily, though I never fall asleep. I’d say it’s more that I daydream with my eyes closed—reviving, but no substitute for lack of sleep.
I wonder if the romanticization of all-nighters on campus makes them more popular than they need to be. I also wonder if I shouldn’t wonder this out loud. I also wonder if Columbia will notice that it has structural flaws that perpetuate this pervasive state of sleep deprivation—that CSA’s recommended nine hoursof free time a week isn’t enough.
It seems that the general culture of sleeplessness at Columbia trivializes the experiences of students with sleep disorders. Hassan says that sometimes people respond to her exhaustion by telling her that everyone’s tired. “People definitely try to underplay it.”
“It’s a term people use colloquially now,” Multedo concludes. “It’s not really taken seriously because people don’t sleep at this college all the time.”
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