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Sleep tips for exam success from a sleep expert

  • Priory psychotherapist Steve Clarke suggests techniques to induce sleep even if you are anxious about exams
  • Regular sleep and waking patterns are key: ‘Don’t sacrifice sleep for study’
  • ‘Reserve the bed for rest, never revision’, don’t have your smartphone by your bed, and reduce caffeine
  • Never “pull an all-nighter” (24 hours or more of sleep deprivation)

Sleeping in, going to sleep late or sometimes not at all, napping – these are all common to students. But as the start of public exams and “finals” looms in schools and universities across the UK, the wellbeing of students, and the amount of sleep they achieve, is paramount.

A healthy approach to diet, exercise, organisation and overall stress management is vital during exam season. Getting adequate sleep is imperative, says Steve Clarke, psychotherapist at Priory’s Life Works Hospital in Woking, Surrey.

Previous studies by The Sleep Council found that in the month leading up to exams, the number of teenagers who managed just five to six hours sleep a night doubled to 20%. The overwhelming majority - 83% - of teens said their sleep was affected by stress and pre-exams nerves, whilst 56% admitted to regularly cramming all their revision for an exam into one night.

Steve Clarke says one of the most important aspects of maintaining a ‘mindful’ approach to exams is to keep the bedroom a sanctuary for sleep and not a space crowded by textbooks, laptops and revision aides. He says the role of sleep in learning and memory is crucial and urges regular sleep patterns, following a study of Harvard College students, in the journal Scientific Reports, which found that students who did not go to bed, or wake up, at consistent times every day were more likely to have lower grades.

Irregular sleepers had a delayed release of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin, which helps to set both the sleep and wake cycles for the body, by as much as three hours.

Experts say it can make your body feel as if it is in a different time zone – so when it was actually 8am, irregular sleepers felt it was 5am.

Steve said; “Many students use their bedroom as a base for homework and study. Ideally it’s vital that the bed itself is reserved for rest and not revision. A lack of sleep can significantly cloud your judgement and affect your performance potential the following day.

“Sleep should be seen as a core part of your preparation. Try to stick to a regular bedtime and, if you really feel the need for some last-minute cramming, then set your alarm a little earlier and have a quick refresh first thing.”

Steve Clarke shares his 12 tips for a good night’s sleep.

Listen to music

“Listen to a relaxing playlist of, for example, light classical music that induces relaxation and sleep. The best suggestion is a 30-minute playlist.”

De-clutter your room and don’t time-check

“Re-position your alarm clock because if you can easily view the time, it may provoke stress and anxiety if you are losing valuable sleeping time. If need be, turn it round and don’t be tempted to look.”

Keep a regular schedule

“Maintain a regular wake and sleep schedule, even on weekends.”

Include physical activity in your daily routine

“Keep active during the day as much as you can but don’t exercise just before you go to bed.”

Always avoid stimulants

“No nicotine one to two hours before bed – it’s a stimulant. Caffeine, too, should be avoided before bed. It’s not just in coffee but also tea, chocolate and fizzy drinks.”

Don’t take naps

“This ensures you are tired by the time you go to bed.”

Don’t have a TV in the bedroom

“Don’t watch TV in bed. It’s generally stimulating for the brain. The same goes for streaming on a laptop or tablet. Charge your phone and devices outside your room, and don’t use the alarm on your phone as an excuse to keep your phone by your bed.”

Don’t use your smartphone in bed 

“Their noise and light can interfere with sleeping. LCD screens on phones and tablets emit light that is blue enriched. This light influences the body’s internal clock (circadian rhythm) and delays the release of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin.”

Consider scent

“A scented humidifier next to the bed, with a setting of 30 minutes, is great for relaxation. You can use a favourite perfume if that works or spray the pillow lightly with lavender oil.”

Drink chamomile tea 20 mins before bed.

“Herbal tea is soothing and calming.”

Make time to relax and unwind

“A soak in a hot bath for example, or a 10-minute meditation and breathing exercises, will help.”

Stress management

“Exams are stressful but don’t ‘catastrophise’. If something is causing particular anxiety, keep a notebook by the side of your bed and jot down whatever is inducing the anxiety, pop into a bedside draw and leave it until the morning.”


Notes to editors

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About Priory Group

The Priory Group is the leading provider of behavioural care in the UK caring for around 30,000 people a year for conditions including depression, stress, drug and alcohol addiction, eating disorders and self-harming. The Group is organised into three divisions – healthcare, education and children’s services, and adult care. The Priory Group is owned by NASDAQ-listed Acadia Healthcare, which is recognised as a global leader in behavioural health.

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