BlogWellbeingHow to Study for the HSC When You Have Insomnia

How to Study for the HSC When You Have Insomnia

Girl struggling to sleep in her bed - Teenage Insomnia

Many students have a case of teenage insomnia and find it really difficult to get the sleep they need during their HSC year. It’s easy to feel incredibly stressed, which can make us stay up at night worrying or unable to sleep. 

This can have a big impact on your mood, focus and study ability. So, what should you do if insomnia is plaguing your final year of school?

We spoke to Rosemary Clancy a Sleep/Clinical Psychologist (MCCLP) at LetSleepHappen and Sydney Sleep Centre, to find out what you can do if sleep is becoming challenging. 

Keep reading to find out! 

What is insomnia?
A Note on Medication
5 Practical Tips for Teenage Insomnia

What is insomnia? 

Insomnia is the struggle to fall asleep or stay asleep that becomes anxiety-provoking. It often occurs because we are under pressure or have a lot going on in our lives. Most people only experience this short-term, however it can become a chronic issue. 

Rosemary explained, “Sleep deprivation is the ability to fall asleep, but not enough opportunity, while insomnia is plenty of opportunity to fall asleep despite being seemingly unable to.” 

So, if you’re laying in bed for hours each night wondering when you’ll possibly get some rest, you may be experiencing teenage insomnia. 

A Note on Medication

One of the first, and most important, things Rosemary told us is that poor sleep in your final year of school is unlikely to make or break your ATAR. Sure, you may find it harder to focus or have good control over your life. The reality is, though, that a bout of insomnia isn’t going to cancel out years of study and hard work. 

We need to talk first about medication. It can be really tempting to go to your GP and prescribe a quick fix. We get it — you’re stressed, exams are looming and you just want to be rested. 

Rosemary said she has seen a rise in senior high school students coming to visit her, already taking sleep medication that has been prescribed to them by a GP. Though being sedated can make you feel as if you’ve had a great night’s sleep, there’s a couple of reasons this can be problematic. 

Teenage Insomnia - Quote

She shared, “There is evidence that sleeping pills also affect the dream or REM sleep stage, which is important for consolidating memory. During HSC you probably don’t want to miss out on the benefits of REM sleep.”

“Finally medication can be problematic because tolerance can develop. Many people then end up taking sedatives for a long time, even if they no longer need them. People experience something called attribution shift, where they trust the sedative effects of the medication more than their own brain’s sleep regulation,” Rosemary concluded.

5 Practical Tips for Dealing with Teenage Insomnia

Now that we have spoken about what not to do, let’s jump into Rosemary’s practical tips! By following these, you’ll hopefully feel better rested and able to tackle your study with vengeance. 

Tip #1: Get up at the same time each day (and get sunlight) 

This tip is simple yet effective! 

By getting up at the same time each day, we reinforce our circadian rhythm, or the biological process that helps us know when you rest and when to be wakeful. Though you’re not going to be able to get the perfect amount of sleep every night, you should be aiming for eight hours daily and getting up early enough to have time before you need to rush off for the day. 

Rosemary also explained that by waking up at the same time each morning and getting sunlight right away, you “trigger a cortisol pulse that gives you the energy to start your day”. The sunlight will help control the cortisol and melatonin in your body, resetting your mood and help you feel happier despite tiredness. 

Professor Andrew Huberman at Stanford University has also found that through creating an “optic flow”, in which we move around as soon as we wake up and see movement of objects, we are likely to feel more awake. So, a walk in sunlight can really help tackle your tiredness and get you into a good shape for study! 

Essentially, getting up and getting sun will help you feel ready to study, even if your sleep the night before wasn’t great. 

Tip #2: Don’t sleep during the day 

This tip also has to do with maximising your homeostatic drive. If you’re tired, it can be easy to crawl back into bed and try to get more rest. More rest equates to more study, right? 

Unfortunately, sleeping for more than 30 minutes during the day can really screw up our circadian rhythm and may put you behind on beating insomnia. 

Further, it means that we become frustrated with our bed or broader sleep environment, so we aren’t as likely to feel rested and ready to sleep at the end of the day. Rosemary explained that being in bed when it’s light outside can confuse our brain about whether we should be asleep or awake. 

So, even if you’re very tired and need a break from study, try to do something gentle instead of having a snooze. Perhaps you will go for a walk, read a book or watch a show for a little while. This will hopefully get you back on track to continue studying.  

Tip #3: Associate your bed with sleepiness 

As an extension from our last point, your bed needs to be a place of sleep! Read: your bed should not be a place for rolling around angry about your insomnia. 

If you’re spending time awake in bed, instead of getting more frustrated, just get out of bed. Go to another room with a comfy lounge or something so you can reset,” Rosemary said. “Do something non-stimulating in the other room like a rain app or breathing app.”  

Even though it may seem counter-intuitive, staying in bed can negatively affect the neurotransmitters in your brain that help govern sleepiness. You are more likely to kick your insomnia if you have a separate place that you can relax during the night. This way, you’re less likely to be angry the next morning and ready to crack on with a bit of study. 

Tip #4: Have a good wind-down routine

This point is super important! Having a good wind-down routine is vital to increasing your quality and likelihood of sleep. If you have good sleep, you have better study — you know the drill by now.

Let’s break down the scene between having a good routine before bed. 

First, you’re going to help yourself feel relaxed if you’re doing calming things before bed. You’ll lower the cortisol levels in your body, which will (hopefully) make you less stressed and lead to less insomnia. Rosemary explained that “relaxation before bed does have a role in assisting sleep onset”. 

Another really important thing is that having a consistent routine before bed creates habits in your brain. Brushing your teeth, putting your PJs on, having a shower and so forth in the same order each night will signal to your head that a ‘pre-sleep’ habit is forming. Your mind will come to know that sleep is the natural next step. 

Rosemary told us that making bed time habitual actually changes the part of the brain that is being used to try and enact sleep. This is incredibly valuable for kicking teenage insomnia. The less thought you have to put into bed-time, the earlier it will be to sleep and study well the next day!

If you have good habits, you’re going to feel sleepy because you have a good wind-down routine,” she said. 

Some things you may do at night include: 

Teenage Insomnia - Sleep Routine Ideas

  • Reading a book 
  • Having a bath 
  • Minimising blue light 
  • Meditation — read about some apps that are useful for meditating and reducing stress here!
  • Doing simple night tasks in the same order 

Learn more about maintaining a healthy sleep routine here!

Tip #5: Be realistic 

One of the biggest things Rosemary stressed is that an imperfect sleep is entirely normal, and it’s not going to undo all the years of hard work that you have put into school. We often feel as if we’ve had a terrible sleep, when in reality it hasn’t been too bad. 

We humans lose perspective… We’re not good at judging time at night,” Rosemary said. According to her sleep tests, it’s quite common to wake for just 10 minutes yet feel as if it has been hours. 

We can hear things in the environment during 1 and 2 sleep, and now even in REM sleep… so we interpret that as wakefulness.” From this dilemma, you can see how our perspective of insomnia can be almost as dangerous as the lack of sleep itself. Let’s fix that! 

Sleep is paradoxical: if you try too hard you may find it harder to get to sleep,” Rosemary said. One of the best things you can do for insomnia is set yourself into a good routine, and then give yourself space for mistakes. 

“You can get everything else perfect, but if you’re going to start doing that for sleep, you’ll create performance anxiety and that’s problematic,” Rosemary added. 

With some trial and error, you will hopefully find the right balance in your sleep routine to kick teenage insomnia and keep studying hard. 

Some Tips for Studying Tired 

Teenage Insomnia - Tips

  • Drink water 
  • Eat plenty of protein (those nuts and blueberries will come in handy) 
  • Write a to-do list and divide up tasks into small chunks 
  • Use a study timer like the Pomodoro Method
  • Set tangible goals for the day 

HSC is a stressful year and it makes sense for students to experience some sleepless nights. It’s important to know that you’re not being a bad student by not being able to sleep. 

Ultimately though, it’s great to try and kick insomnia to get your study back on track, and these tools should help you do that. 

Remember that everyone has different struggles during Year 12. Your sleep is not going to be the end of your academic success — keep pushing through and seek professional help if your teenage insomnia becomes too much to handle.

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Lucinda Garbutt-Young hopes to one day be writing for a big-shot newspaper… or maybe just for a friendly magazine in the arts sector. Right now, she is enjoying studying a Bachelor of Public Communication (Public Relations and Journalism) at UTS while she writes on the side. She also loves making coffees for people in her job as a barista, and loves nothing more than a sun shower.

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