What to do when you can't sleep before an exam

by Mark Miller December 01, 2016 5 min read

What to do when you can't sleep before an exam

“Night and Sleep,” an 1878 painting by Evelyn De Morgan (Wikimedia Commons)

Sleep before exams or other important milestone can be elusive. With final exams coming up in December for college and high school students, we’ve collected some advice and wisdom from here and there on the Internet on what to do if you can’t sleep before an exam.

The ancient Romans had a god of sleep, Somnus, whose name gave us the word somnolence, which means sleepy. Somnus was a pleasant, smooth god in contrast to Death, who was thought to be vicious and grasping. “Somnus is the twin of Death, and is a pleasant youth, carrying a poppy and a horn from which he dispenses sleep.”

(By the time of medieval Europe, life was so hard for the masses that they looked on death as a gift. Somnus was equated with Hypnos of the Greeks.)

Everybody loves sleep

It seems like just about everybody loves sleep. Did you ever hear people complain about missing even one night of sleep? This writer’s first college roommate loved sleep so much he told a friend and I that it was his ambition was to sleep forever. This was well before finals, so maybe it wasn’t such an ill-considered wish!

But according to an article on the University of Cincinnati Health website, if you miss a night or even two of sleep, most people can still function well. Even though it may seem disastrous if you don’t get to sleep the night before a test, all may not be lost. But losing sleep is frustrating, tiring and can seem like the end of the world to a young scholar who wants to do the best possible on an exam.

Missing sleep can be a vicious cycle

And trying to get to sleep can be a vicious cycle, says an article on the University of Cincinnati Health’s website. The more time passes that you lie sleepless in bed, the more difficult it sometimes becomes to fall asleep, and the more you worry. The more you worry, the more upset you get emotionally and even physically, and the elusive the Land of Nod becomes.

According to WebMD and other sites, the first thing you should try is to get out of bed and do something unexciting. After just 20 minutes of lying sleepless in bed, go to another room in low lighting and listen to some type of quiet music. Or read a book that you’ve read previously so you don’t get caught up in it and so you don’t get excited by the plot. Don’t get back in bed until you feel sleepy again.

No alcohol before exams

Also, do not drink any more than usual, or even at all before you try to get to sleep. In another article, WebMD says drinking can interfere with the restorative REM sleep time that happens occasionally throughout a night’s sleep cycle. The more you drink, the worse the interference.

“Alcohol may seem to be helping you to sleep, as it helps induce sleep, but overall it is more disruptive to sleep, particularly in the second half of the night,” researcher Irshaad Ebrahim, medical director at The London Sleep Centre in the U.K, told WebMD. “Alcohol also suppresses breathing and can precipitate sleep apnea. … Alcohol should not be used as a sleep aid, and regular use of alcohol as a sleep aid may result in alcohol dependence.”

Cal Adler, a doctor with University of Cincinnati Mood Disorders Center, advises people to establish good what he calls good sleep hygiene for life, not just around testing time. Good sleep hygiene and habits involves having a regular sleep schedule in a cool, quiet, dark place. For adults, many professionals suggest 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night. Don’t deviate from this schedule before tests if you can manage.

Sleep before exams

This also means not leaving studying until the last minute. If you get your studying done well before the exam, you may be able to get your usual sleep time. Dr. Adler says getting to sleep the night before exams may come more easily if students have a well-established sleep pattern.

Dr. Adler also advises light exercise before bed but not overdoing it. He says people should not overeat the night before an exam. Sometimes bathing or showering before going to bed helps. Don’t try to add more studying time if you don’t fall asleep right away. Just get in bed even if you believe you’ll be unable to sleep quickly.

WebMD says it’s counter-productive to stare at or look at the clock repeatedly. If you do need to get up to go to the bathroom or something like that, maintain low lighting. Bright lights are stimulating and should be avoided when you’re trying to sleep.

Sleep techniques

Some other techniques include progressive relaxation. Tense and relax the muscles of first your scalp, then your face. Leave them relaxed, then move down the body, continuing to the neck, the shoulders, the chest, the stomach and back and the buttocks, thighs, calves and finally the feet. Contract these muscles, then relax them. Or you can start at your feet and work your way up to your head.

You may find this relaxes you so much you fall asleep to get a good night’s sleep before an exam.

Meditation on a word or sound also can be helpful. So can visualization of a peaceful place, state of mind or sights and sounds.

Don’t medicate yourself, and certainly not with alcohol or illicit drugs. If you have a lot of trouble sleeping, talk to your physician about it, and he may prescribe a medication to help you sleep if he thinks you really need it.

You can’t force sleep

“You can’t force yourself to sleep,” says Scott Ries, a professor at the UC Mood Disorders Center. “It’s something that relies on your being able to let go. Think of all the times when you fall asleep at night when you’re reading a book or watching television or attending a dinner party. You can barely keep your eyes open, because you are not trying to sleep. And then, the night before something big, you go to bed and think, ‘I have to get a good night’s sleep!’ And that worry begins to ruminate in your mind. Plus you are worrying about the stressful event that you will be facing tomorrow. So you already have one worry, and now you’re adding another one.  Your brain is going to alert itself to a problem out there, and it is going to try to keep you awake.”

He emphasized that his remarks were directed at people who usually are fine falling asleep, not people who suffer from serious sleep disorders.

Finally, the owners of this Web site sell a product, Viter Energy Mints, that contain caffeine, which has been shown in study after study to have many beneficial effects on humans. But as we have stated repeatedly on this blog: If coffee and caffeine keep you up at night, don’t take them past early afternoon, and certainly don’t take them later in the day if you are trying to get to sleep before an exam or other big life event like a speech.


Mark Miller
Mark Miller

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