Hey! It's Sophia here. I work as the sleep health intern at UCSB Health & Wellness and I’ve created this blog for the purpose of reaching students and providing resources about sleep. I hope to include some serious posts, some fun ones, and some deeply personal ones as well. Through the meshing of different sleep related topics and experiences, the hope is that folks will have a platform to share and to learn about this thing we call sleep. 

First, I want to share my own sleep story: the reason why I’m here working at Health & Wellness and the reason I am advocating for sleep education across college campuses. It’s a difficult topsy-turvy story that still leaves a lot of room for growth. In the future, I hope to share your sleep stories here, so students can understand that sleep anxiety should not be dealt with alone. I hope my story can be the first step. 


My Sleep Story:

My parents say I used to sleep better than any other kid. When I was five-six-seven-eight I would snooze in cars, on couches, what have you. It wasn’t too big a struggle to get me to bed at night either, which is saying a lot when you’re a little kid. Granted I did develop a habit at some point of waking up at 3 am and banging my mom’s head with a book to get her to read to me, but for the most part my sleep was solid. However, around age 12 something shifted. Maybe it was puberty, all the raging hormones. I always thought it might have had to do with some of my first early experiences with anxiety. Either way, that summer, I hardly slept. Meaning I would get maybe 2-3 hours a night. That isn’t enough for any kid or even any adult. 

I remember feeling very disconnected from the world, and from my friends especially. No one else was going through anything remotely similar, at least to my knowledge. I recall having a fuzzy conversation with one of my friends, as I tried to describe the sensation of not being able to sleep. The sensation of not being able to do something my body was designed to do was so inconceivably frustrating I had trouble finding the words. “I can’t even imagine it,” she’d said. 

But when the summer ended, my sleep came back. I was astonished. Was having a routine really all it took for me to sleep again? Not quite, but it sure did help. The following summer, it hit me again. The no sleeping, the hours sitting there with no distraction from this fact. It is lonely to be the only one awake. I started developing a routine during the summer. My mom would pull me out of bed at 8 in the morning and hand me a cup of tea. She would take my drowsy pajama-clad self out on early morning walks and I would stumble down the street with my eyes all blurry feeling crabby and out of sorts. I was not an early bird. 

I started to believe that maybe I was the problem. I was sleeping in too much. I was going to bed too late. I needed to become a morning person, that would surely fix stuff. I thought that for a very long time. I didn’t understand how anxiety could possibly be connected to sleep. But for me, it was. During the summer, there was more time to think, which meant I tended to have more anxiety than in school. And the same thing happened over and over again: in the summer I would be unable to sleep, during the school year I was fine, for the most part. Until I wasn’t. 

Around age 15, I started experiencing insomnia regularly during the school year. For weeks at a time, I would sleep 3-5 hours, or sometimes not at all (at least, that’s what it felt like- realistically, I probably slept an hour or two. People tend to underestimate the amount of time they are asleep). I finally gave up and went to the doctor. Instead of recommending therapy, the doctor gave me some valium (folks, do not use valium. Especially when you are 15). My parents were terrified of the stuff, and had it locked in a drawer unless I said I really needed it. I swore never to use it two days in a row. For a while, it helped. I stopped taking it around 17 because my sleep seemed to be improving. There were a few sleepless nights every week or so, but I could deal with it. 

But then there was college. Freshman year was tough regardless, but having two roommates that woke up at 7 am every day for early morning biology classes was not ideal for me. It was then that I experienced my worst bout of insomnia to this day. It started late fall quarter and continued throughout winter. I couldn’t fall asleep. I was sleeping maybe 1-2 hours a night. I overcompensated by forcing myself to go to bed much too early and get up at the crack of dawn even after a sleepless night. 

These actions resulted in me feeling constantly left out when friends would hang out late. But I barely had the energy to put into socializing anyhow. I started to hallucinate things moving when they weren’t. People would talk to me and I would look right through them. I became very sick. I went to the doctor and they told me I couldn’t get better until I slept. But I can’t sleep, I would say. I felt so entirely alone, and I missed most of my winter quarter classes, laying in a makeshift dog bed couch which pressed against the closet of my dorm room, watching endless TV and running a high fever. 

I got on the waitlist to see a psychiatrist. It was a month long. I counted down the days. When covid hit, I had to go home and I remember the first time seeing my mom I completely lost it and started crying. It was a tough time, but I was back in my own bed. And eventually I got a meeting with the psychiatrist, who prescribed me Lunesta for sleep. While I do think therapy is often the better route for dealing with sleep problems (and I wish someone told me this sooner), I was in a situation where medication was necessary. I slowly recovered from being ill and my sleep began to improve. 

Sophomore year of college I lived in “covid housing” which meant I was only with one other person and I had my own room. The slow transition was much better for my sleep. I contacted a sleep therapist who specializes in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and it changed my life. I started to learn about my sleep habits, instead of the sleep habits I thought I should have. I learned three important things: 

1. I don’t need to force myself to go to bed or wake up. I only need to try to remain consistent while listening to my body whenever it shows signs of tiredness or alertness

2. Anxiety was ruling over my sleep, and I was trying to control it. But I couldn’t control my sleep. All I can do is accept that my body knows how to sleep and will sleep eventually

 3. If I have trouble sleeping one night, that doesn’t mean I will have trouble sleeping the next night.

I also learned that establishing a bedtime routine can reduce anxiety and even induce sleepiness. Overtime, my body began to associate my bedtime routine with sleep and I began to expect sleepiness to come at certain times. I learned that I needed the routine piece but that I also needed less expectation and more acceptance in my relationship with sleep. I kept a sleep log and tracked my sleep every night. I cut out caffeine for periods of time. I realized that I had a lot of anxiety surrounding my sleep environment being “just right:” the right pillow, the right pajamas, the right blanket. I experimented with changing up the environment to show myself that I could still sleep, even without perfect circumstances. 

There's no shortcut to getting good sleep. It’s about being in a relationship with your body, one where you understand that some nights your body might have more difficulty with sleep, and might need more support. Forcing sleep with quick fix techniques can lead to a lot of frustration and even more sleepless nights. This year I started as the sleep intern at Health & Wellness and since then I’ve been trying my darndest to reach students. As a student, it is so easy to sink into the rhythm of being a zombie during the day and remaining wide awake at night. It makes socializing tough, it makes your relationship with yourself tough, it makes doing school work tough, and it can be an incredible strain on a person's mental health. If you have a story you want to tell, reach out to me. I want those stories to be told. 

I still take sleep medication every evening  and I still use therapeutic techniques to help me get to bed. It is an ongoing process of self care that I always need to come back to, and it will never be perfect. But now I know what steps to take when I am struggling. I still have anxiety some nights, but for the most part, I sleep.