A Look Into Sleep Martyrdom
By RAMSEY BADEN | August 2, 2017
“You’re so lucky you’re not in that class. I got four hours of sleep last night.”
“That’s nothing. I had to pull my second all-nighter in a row to study.”
“Pain is temporary, GPA is forever!”
We hear the sacrificial cries. We watch as our lifeless peers shuffle through the halls, stumble into classrooms, and slump behind desks, only to collapse in exhaustion and miss their lectures entirely. Many of us are even more familiar with these routines, having fallen into them ourselves.
“Sleep martyrdom” has grown increasingly popular in higher education over the past few decades. The idea that sleeplessness is linked to success is one that has gestated in university culture, and many students put this concept into practice by working long hours and sleeping less. I have been guilty of the same action, convincing myself that I function well nocturnally and even do better work at night.
One of my worst examples of this was when I stayed up for three days in a row to write the entirety of a 32-page literary analysis paper. What I failed to admit to myself at the time was that I was attacking my own brain and body by keeping it from rest.
While sleep martyrdom and stress one-upmanship have been touched on in the past (usually by students themselves), there are few scientific, peer-reviewed studies to be found on the subject. But sleep martyrdom is very real, and is a significant part of modern university cultures. Today, college students around the world have begun to compare their levels of sleep deprivation as a mark of how much stress they are under. As university students have gravitated towards using stress as an indicator of “productivity, success, and resilience,” students have felt more and more pressure to compete in an entirely new arena wherein those suffering the most are the ones admired for their efforts. This is where sleep martyrdom comes into play – it is frequently believed that the students who sleep less are accomplishing more and are being better students by taking on an impossible number of tasks. So often, I hear phrases like the ones in the beginning of this article from friends, acquaintances, family members, and even myself when under pressure. “Pain is temporary, GPA is forever” has become the mantra of the modern student.
Meanwhile, the idea that less sleep means more work will be done could not be farther from the truth.
Researchers at Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine have compiled several studies on college sleep deprivation and its impact on memory. One study found that 40 percent of students felt entirely well-rested only two days per week. A similar study found that only 11 percent of students slept well consistently. According to the Harvard website, learning relies on the acquisition, consolidation, and retention of information by the brain, and “inadequate sleep negatively impacts all three learning processes.” The less sleep one has, the more ineffective their memory becomes. Ironically, by attempting to stay up longer to study, many students are damaging their ability to hold on to the very information they are trying to learn.
Researchers at Emory University and the University of Georgia have shown that a lack of sleep can lead to inflammation (which can lead to heart disease or stroke) and lower academic performance. In 2009, an Emory physician and sleep specialist named Dr. David Schulman compared the effects of sleep deprivation to those of chronic alcoholism. He noted that, in the same way those suffering from chronic alcoholism often cannot determine how drunk they are, sleep deprived people “lose the ability to detect how tired [they] are.”
It is clear that the perceived benefits of cutting out sleep are largely nonexistent, and that losing sleep negatively impacts one’s quality of life. Sleep deprivation is ultimately detrimental to one's performance.
Why, then, are more students looking at the darkest hours of the night as time to work? To answer this question, the culture that has developed in universities around the United States must be understood. Students today face a multitude of pressures from a variety of sources, including their families, friends, and environment. The push to pursue more leadership positions, credit hours, jobs, internships, and volunteer opportunities has arguably led to a culture in which accomplishments are prioritized over self-care.
In keeping with this, some might argue that their lack of sleep is not of their choosing. For these students, the expectations of higher education today are setting work standards that are unreasonably high, forcing them to sacrifice basic necessities like sleep in order to complete the workloads placed on their shoulders by college administrators. There is no research that can comprehensively (or accurately) respond to these claims. Only these students can answer for themselves how much they are putting on their plates, or what kinds of pressures are being placed on them.
It is important to note that sleep martyrdom has nothing to do with the very real sleep disorders that affect a great number of students in college. I spoke with a third-year friend at Emory about one such affliction – their sleep apnea. They told me how sleep apnea has interrupted their REM sleep, leaving them in a constant state of exhaustion and low-energy. Despite a thorough diagnosis and treatments ranging as far as surgical intervention, their sleep apnea continues to persist. Sleep apnea is just one of many sleep disorders that affect “an estimated 50-70 million adults in the US” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Sleep is a crucial aspect of health, and there are many students who are unable to control the quality of their sleep, often through no fault of their own. Unfortunately, poor sleep habits can also lead to such disorders if left unchecked – a 2010 study on college sleep disorder prevalence in the Journal of American College Health indicated that 27 percent of college students were at risk for at least one sleep disorder in part due to their sleeping habits.
Sleep martyrdom is a health hazard. Thankfully, it is one that can be treated.