Douglas: Northwestern students undervalue sleep benefits


Sam Douglas, Columnist

A couple of days ago, as I sat at a long, communal table at the Starbucks on Sherman Avenue, I was joined by two girls, both Northwestern students, who proceeded to describe vigorously to each other just how stressed each one was. They were both stressed. Very stressed.

Beyond stress, each prided herself on having slept no more than three hours the night before.

What is wrong with our educational ethos that two students feel the need to justify being unhealthily sleep deprived?

I once went to a talk with NU alumni who happened to be theatre practitioners in “the real world.” When asked how prepared they were for life post-graduation, they claimed they were overly ready to meet the demands of financial stability and job security. However, they warned that NU alumni, especially in the Windy City’s theatrical community, have a reputation for taking on more projects than they can handle. This problem, more commonly known as overcommitting, can often lead to changes in sleep cycles. Overcommitting is something that sets NU graduates apart from other Chicago-area college alumni. Apparently this is a plague native only to Wildcats.

But is the obligation to overcommit actually a bad thing? When it messes up your sleep cycle, absolutely. If you’ve been on Facebook recently, perhaps one of your friends who is more conscientious of his or her health (or of your own! What a good friend!) posted an article from The Huffington Post, which warns that not getting the right amount of sleep can (surprise, surprise) have serious effects on your health. With the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending teens spend nine to 10 hours a day and adults seven to eight hours a day asleep, only 59 percent of American adults sleep the recommended amount, 25 percent fewer people than in 1942. Disruptions in circadian rhythms lead to negative health outcomes like obesity, diabetes, cancers or a quadrupling of stroke risk due to changes in gene expression in blood cells.

In spite of these statistics, we don’t treat sleep with the importance it deserves. Rarely do we take moments to breathe, to spend time alone, to think about ourselves. Is it perhaps because we don’t want to miss out? Or maybe because we feel the need to pad our resumes? My hunch is that the latter is more accurate: I must confess that I have also been guilty of such sentiments.

When my Starbucks table buddies arrived and began comparing and commiserating about their unenviable situations, I found myself baffled not by the self-confidence that they were doing the right thing in never sleeping, but in their lack of concern for their health and that they presented as cool and hip a seriously unhealthy stereotype to those around them.

Overcommitment and sleep deprivation are issues that affect not only individuals but also communities, making both stale, cynical and apathetic. They are also issues that cannot be solved simply by signing up for fewer activities, but must be untangled from our values. What do you value? Does your NU value having a stroke as a result of studying for tests at age 20? Let’s make it a priority to stay alive longer by going to sleep more.

Sam Douglas is a Communication sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].