To his teachers, 16-year-old Jason is the student most likely to fall asleep in class. After all, his school day is followed by a grueling basketball practice and three hours behind a fast-food counter. Then there’s homework, late-night phone chats with his girlfriend, and catching up on MTV. When Jason’s head finally hits the pillow, his mind is still racing with thoughts about everything from tomorrow’s history test to his latest outbreak of zits. Then, just when it seems like he’s finally settled into a cozy sleep, his alarm clock rousts him out of bed to start another day.
Jason is suffering from insomnia, a sleep disorder that afflicts about one-third of all American adults and is a growing problem among high school students. If you regularly take more than 30 minutes to fall asleep, or if you wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep, you’ve got one of the most typical forms of insomnia.
When you’re tired, you’re more likely to snap at your friends and family. Your grades may slip because you’ll have trouble concentrating in class. Your body’s immune system also suffers so you’re more likely to catch colds and the flu. But the most tragic consequence is that you’re more prone to cause traffic accidents. Estimates are that lack of sleep leads to as many as 200,000 auto accidents a year.
What Causes Insomnia?
The causes of insomnia are complex, but most sleep experts agree that stress is at the center. Like Jason, you might be cramming so much activity into your day, your mind doesn’t have time to sort it all out until the lights are out and the TV is off.
If you go to bed with unresolved problems, it will be even harder to get to sleep and stay asleep.
Other problems can get in the way of sleep too. Excess caffeine in your diet (from colas, coffee, chocolate, etc.), chronic nightmares, or breathing problems could also be keeping you awake.
Teen Sleep Patterns
The changes in your body that come with puberty lead to new sleeping habits. For one thing, once you hit age 13, you need more sleep–not less–than you did when you were younger. According to Dr. Richard Allen, founder of the Johns Hopkins Sleep Disorders Center, “Teens tend to get only six to seven hours of sleep a night, which isn’t enough. They should be getting at least eight to nine hour’s.”
You might also find yourself more energetic in the evening than during the morning hours, and, therefore, unable to get to sleep before 10 p.m. “Due to their biological clock, teens are more alert later in the day. In fact, they’re wide awake after school lets out,” says Allen.
With all that late-day energy, it might seem logical that you should fill after-school hours with constructive activity. Most teenagers today are doing that and then some. A recent survey of 3,000 teens conducted by Brown University’s School of Medicine found that 59 percent of those surveyed held part-time jobs. And 20 percent said they spend at least 20 hours per week on extracurricular activities. All that running around takes its toll-remember Jason? It’s no wonder, then, that adolescents today sleep 90 minutes less every night than their grandparents did as teenagers.
What Can Be Done?
First, what not to do. You might be tempted to sleep away the weekend to make up for a “sleep deficit” you’ve built up during the week. Unfortunately, this usually doesn’t work because most people’s sleep debt is too large to be made up in one or two nights. Plus, if you go right back to sleeping six hours a night during the week, you’ll be sleeping through nearly every weekend.
According to the Better Sleep Council, the best way to over-come insomnia is to change the daily lifestyle habits that might be keeping you from getting a good night’s sleep. Try cutting back on your after-school activity. If that’s not possible, something as simple as listening to a different type of music before bedtime might be all you need to get a good night’s sleep. Besides making you happier and healthier, once you beat insomnia, you’ll never have to worry again about falling asleep in class!
SIX WAYS TO BEAT INSOMNIA
1. Get 30 minutes of vigorous exercise at least three days a week. But make sure your workouts are over at least five hours before bedtime.
2. Avoid coffee, colas, chocolate, and anything else with caffeine after 5 p.m.
3. If your mattress is too hard or soft, or your bed is too small, see if you can get a more comfortable bead.
4. Start a bedtime ritual. Do the same activities in the same order each night before going to bed. This signals to your brain that it’s sleep time.
5. Avoid arguments, loud music, and other things that might make you anxious right before bedtime.
6. If you absolutely can’t get to sleep any earlier, arrange to get up later in the morning so you can log the eight hours of sleep your body needs.