Last year duing the deadline week of second term I was still, by all accounts, functioning normally. Despite the fact I was rushing to get my two summative essays ready before the end of the week, I was eating, sleeping, and going to the pub with friends a couple of times a week as I had been all year. But sometimes the stress and strain we are actually experiencing is unknown even to ourselves.
Two or three nights before the deadline I had a few friends round for dinner; towards the end of the evening I left the kitchen to get my phone from my room. When I came back my friends were staring at me in horror. As I left the room I had brushed my hand against the latch on the door and gashed it open. Blood had been pouring out of my hand for a minute or so and I hadn’t noticed. The injury wasn’t even serious enough to send me to A&E, but as I reflected on the complete lack of pain I experienced I realised that my general stress level and intensity of my focus at the time meant that if I was concentrating on something – my work, the thought of getting my phone from my room, cooking dinner – everything else was shut out.
This monomania has its benefits, especially when you’re dealing with a big work load, but I have since realised that such a lifestyle can have very serious mental health consequences. As someone who has suffered from anxiety for years I assumed that I would be very aware of my limits – overworking myself or not getting enough sleep is rarely an issue for people whose internal warning system is already so sensitive. But as I looked down at my bandaged hand, I realised that I was already well beyond my limits and hadn’t had any idea. It was like looking up from swimming in the sea and realising that I couldn’t see land anymore.
Looking back, the issue was to do with sleep. Not necessarily the amount of time I was sleeping, but the quality of sleep I was getting. I would often go to sleep either in front of Netflix, drunk, or after tossing and turning for hours of insomnia only to wake up four hours later for a seminar. At a time of high stress, a poor sleeping pattern doesn’t make you feel tired; your level of mental stimulation is such that tiredness never quite sets in, so you never feel like anything is wrong. Beneath the surface however, the toll being taken is extreme. Exhibit A: my mutilated hand.
When we all first arrive at university we are told that we have to choose two sides of the epicurean triangle of student lifestyle: work, sleep, and social life. Of course, for leagues of eighteen-year-olds enjoying the freedom of having just left home, the thought of relinquishing a social life is utterly unthinkable, so we are made to feel like the real choice is between passing our degree and sleep. So this is how so many of us begin our student experiences, by being told that a proper night of zeds is an indulgence.
If you type ‘do students’ into google, one of the top recommendations is “get enough sleep”. There are probably some national statistics available on this subject, and I strongly advise you to seek them out if you have the time (which I don’t, because I’ve got some essays due and I’m going to the pub in a bit) but think about this: if you stay until closing in Arena or Time Piece just once a week you will rack up a sleep defecit of about 16 hours a month. That’s the equivalent of a night’s sleep every fortnight, which might not sound that bad, but imagine being told that you had to do an all nighter every two weeks for the rest of your time at uni. Doesn’t sound very much fun put that way, does it?
So how do we stop Exeter becoming a sinkhole of student somnambulism? Last year, at the risk of exacerbating student sleep deprivation and its associated mental health issues, the University brought the start of the timetable forward half an hour. Perhaps it is time we all talk to our Sabbs about reversing this move, or even moving the entire timetable back several hours to begin and end at more sociable hours. Equally, at a time when body confidence is at the forefront of our discourse, why not make the decision to be sleep confident? Just as society arbitrarily frowns upon certain body shapes, it also arbitrarily sneers at those who hit the hay early. Isn’t it time that we give this absurd criticism the middle finger, just as we have done with body image shaming?
So this year, when deadline time approaches, please make sure you’re pulling down the eye-patches on a regular basis. And if you get asked on night out but are already exhausted, tell them you’ll sleep on it…