A young person in their bedroom looking at their phone.

Four tips if you can't sleep because of academic stress

6 min read
20 April 2023

Topics mentioned: sleep problems, school, university, exam stress, self-care

Author: Niamh

About: Niamh, 21, has struggled with insomnia throughout school and uni. She shares four tips to help you if you're struggling to sleep because of exam stress.

I really wanted to succeed in school and in my degree, which led me to put an immense amount of pressure on myself.

Stress – especially academic stress – has really affected my sleep over the years. I struggled with insomnia all throughout secondary school when I was facing my GCSE exams and then my A Levels. All the way to the present day, I still have sleep problems after three years of university deadlines and exams.

Insomnia is a sleep disorder. This means you regularly have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep long enough to feel well-rested in the morning. Not being able to sleep can affect how you feel during the day. This can make school life, work, and any other daily activities difficult. There are lots of things that can cause insomnia, such as stress. 

We usually feel stressed because of something that’s happening to make us feel worried, angry, under pressure or nervous. Although stress is a natural human response and it’s normal to feel stressed sometimes, too much stress can lead to burnout. 

How academic stress affected my sleep

For me, academia is really important to help me achieve my goals in the future. I really wanted to succeed in school and in my degree, which led me to put an immense amount of pressure on myself. This added stress to an already stressful time (exam season, deadlines approaching, etc) which ultimately had a negative impact on my mental health and my sleep pattern. 

I was no longer receiving the average eight hours of sleep or waking up at my normal time at around 8/9am. I was now going to bed at unearthly times, in the early hours of the morning at 3/4am, and waking up at 3/4pm the next day. On the days that I had classes, I would end up surviving the day with less than three hours of sleep. 

I was often too stressed during the day with my studies to have any time off for myself to engage in self-care or fun activities.

Revenge bedtime procrastination

Along with sleep problems because of stress, I would also sacrifice sleep for leisure time. This is because I was often too stressed during the day with my studies to have any time off for myself to engage in self-care or fun activities. Instead of sleeping, I wanted to do the things that I enjoyed because I didn’t have time earlier in the day.

This is known as ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’ and is another reason for lack of sleep and going to sleep at an unreasonable time.

Four tips for improving sleep

How can we sleep well despite academic stress, insomnia, and revenge bedtime procrastination?

The answer is not always simple and different things will work for different people. But here are some options that you can try at home if you are struggling to sleep.

  • Plan your day

    Having an idea of what your day is going to look like is a great way of planning ahead and seeing when you have space for free time. This doesn’t have to be in the form of a to-do list, it can be just an overview of what you have to get done and when. 

    This can help you factor in time to do the things you enjoy and take breaks during the day and avoid revenge bedtime procrastination.

  • Create a bedtime routine

    Firstly, put your electronics away at least one hour before you decide to go to sleep. Sticking to the same set bedtime should become a routine that your body will naturally fall into step with.

    For me, I will have a warm shower, drink bedtime tea (lavender or camomile), and read a good book. These are my wind-down steps which really get me in the mood for sleep.

    Having comfy pyjamas, a comfy bed, and a clean room are also factors that help me sleep better.

  • Practise self-care

    Self-care looks different for everyone. But, simply put, it is the things we can do to look after our mental health. It could be taking time out if we feel overwhelmed or doing an activity that makes us feel good.

    I like to exercise by going on a 30-minute walk every day, which is not only good for my mental health, but it helps to tire my body out and sleep better.

  • Try not to nap

    Try not to take naps if you can avoid it. It can feel tempting, but often a 30-minute nap can turn into a four-hour nap, which ends up meaning you’re not tired at night. Try to push through and get an early night instead if you can.

It’s important for us to look after our mental health and put our own needs first, especially during a stressful academic period. I recommend reaching out to your friends during this time, because they are most likely going through the same thing as you.

It’s okay and normal to feel stressed about things like exams and deadlines. But if your sleep problems don’t go away and daily life is getting difficult, speaking to a trusted adult such as someone in your family, a teacher or your GP for more advice can really help.

Remember, you are not alone.

More information and advice

We have tips and advice to help you find the support you need. Take a look at our guides.

Where to get help

However you're feeling, there are people who can help you if you are struggling. Here are some services that can support you.

  • Student Minds

    Supports students to look after their mental health by providing information and advice.

    They also provide details about local services offered by universities and information on how you can access support group programmes.

    You can call or email for more information (this is not a helpline).

  • The Mix

    Free, short-term online counselling for young people aged 25 or under. Their website also provides lots of information and advice about mental health and wellbeing. 

    Email support is available via their online contact form.

    They have a free 1-2-1 webchat service available during opening hours.

    Opening times:
    4pm - 11pm, Monday - Friday
  • Childline

    If you’re under 19 you can confidentially call, chat online or email about any problem big or small.

    Sign up for a free Childline locker (real name or email address not needed) to use their free 1-2-1 counsellor chat and email support service.

    Can provide a BSL interpreter if you are deaf or hearing-impaired.

    Hosts online message boards where you can share your experiences, have fun and get support from other young people in similar situations.

    Opening times:
    24/7

Thanks for sharing your story Niamh, 21

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