Past research suggested that undergraduate students experience academic stress, and on top of that they have to manage sleep. This study was performed to see if there was a correlation between sleep and stress. Stress was split into seven items: family life, academics, relationships, finances, overall health, and the total impact on their daily lives. Sleep was split into two items: quality and quantity. Students were asked to measure their stress levels in the last two weeks, on a scale of 1-10. They were also asked to measure their hours of sleep and how rested they felt. The results were significant. Students who slept more had a decreased amount of stress. These results may indicate that stress and sleep quality and quantity are negatively correlated. However, there was a sample size of only 27 participants, suggesting a need for further research on this topic.
Stress Levels Among Undergraduate Students
Undergraduate students are required to balance family life, academics, relationships, finances, their overall health and sleep. There is also an empirical finding that people who are sleep deprived tend to have more stress and emotional instability. Lund, Reider, Whiting and Prichard (2010) found that decreased quantity and quality of sleep increased negative moods and contributed to a decline in physical and mental health among college students. They also stated that the lack of sleep quality is attributed to the students’ amount of stress. Therefore, examining the correlation between stress and sleep could help support and add to the studies about sleep deprivation and stress among undergraduate students.
Several studies have examined sleep and stress in the undergraduate student population. In the study of Brougham, Zail, Mendoza and Miller (2009), students completed a stress assessment and a stress coping inventory that was based on a 5-factor revised COPE model, with goals to find a difference between male and female college students when evaluating stress. They found that women had higher levels of stress when it came to family and social relationships and women also reported greater financial stress than their male counterparts. They also found that women coped with stress better than men. Likewise, Lee, Wuertz, Rodgers, and Chen (2013) focused primarily on female students through a series of questionnaires. They reported that students experienced situational stressors that were usually connected to the reduction of sleep. These finding were consistent with previous research that college students were increasingly sleep deprived which consequently increased risks of suicidal ideation and depression.
Similarly, Pilcher, Ginter, and Sadowsky (1997) examined college students from the beginning of the semester and during finals weeks, focusing specifically on their sleep quantity and quality. They found that it was not the quantity of sleep, but the quality of sleep that had more of an effect on health and well-being. Also, Hershner and Chervin (2014), examined how sleep could result in decrease of academic performance which in turn induced academic stress among college students. However, these studies may focus on the mental health implications with stress and sleep, they may also provide information that could enhance and support our data that there is a correlation between the hours of sleep and the levels of stress.
Stress can cause sleep deprivation, and sleep deprivation can also increase levels of stress. Thus, making it hard to find which was causing the effect. Rather than seeking cause and effect, studying if there is a correlation between sleep and stress can provide a more appropriate understanding between these two variables. Therefore, we gathered more data by assessing a numerical scale to determine the extent of stress for each of these topics: family life, academics, relationships, finances and overall health. Unlike prior research on this topic, we sought to address whether students suffered from more types of stress than simply academic stress. We hypothesized that undergraduate students who slept more displayed a decreased amount of stress.
The survey was made available through a link and distributed to the participants. The survey had five sections. The first section was the informed consent, which, in brief, notified the participant that they may withdraw at any time from the survey, their identity will be completely anonymous, and if they agree with the statements, they can move forward in the survey. The complete informed consent procedure can be found in Appendix B. In section two, the participant was instructed to answer the two questions about their sleep quantity and quality on average within the last two weeks. On section three, the participant was then asked to answer the following questions of the various stress items within the last two weeks, on a scale of 0-10. The participants were also given an example of how to interpret the scale, for instance, a 5 out of 10 was 50% of stress on the rated question. Then, section four, the patient was asked about their demographics (i.e., age, gender, ethnic origin). Lastly, the participants were debriefed. The participant was made aware of the purpose of the study, and why the study was performed. The participant was provided an email to contact the researcher(s) for any further questions they may have about the study. The entire debriefing statement can be found in Appendix C. The results were then collected from the survey and evaluated.
To score the results of the scales used to define quality and quantity of sleep of undergraduate students, quality and quantity was standardized into z-scores and then added together to create one dependent variable representing an equally weighted composite of the two sleep indicators. This was the same procedure performed to find the total amount of stress the participants have been experiencing over the past two weeks. Thus, adding all the z-scores of the stress scores together and then dividing by the seven items of the various types of stressors to find the average level of stress for each participant.
Since we are looking for the correlation between sleep and stress, we computed a Pearson’s r correlation and used a two tailed significance test. Results indicated that sleep quality and quantity combined was significantly correlated with stress among undergraduate students, r(27) = -.61, p < .001. From the scatterplot (see Figure 1), it can be seen that there was a negative correlation. Results also indicated that sleep quality and stress are correlated, r(27) = -.69, p < .001, and sleep quantity is also correlated with stress, r(27) = -.40, p < .040. It can also be seen in Figure 2, and Figure 3 that sleep quality and quantity were negatively correlated to stress. Therefore, as sleep quality and quantity increases, the levels of stress decreases.
The results were consistent with the hypothesis that there is a correlation between stress and sleep of undergraduate students. These results were consistent with the outcome of the research by Lee, Weurtz, Rodgers, and Chen (2013). They reported that the participants who were poor sleepers had increased stressors and also had the added risk factors for depressive symptoms, fatigue, and it was also associated with overall poorer health. However, we did not evaluate depressive symptoms or physical symptoms. Regardless, the results support the hypothesis that sleep deprivation and increased stress levels have a relationship.
There was a limitation with performing this study. There were only 27 students who took the survey. This was a smaller sample than expected. One way to increase the authenticity of the study is to steer away from convenience sampling by reaching out to a larger population of undergraduate students rather than just one course in one university. There are a few other considerations for further research on stress and sleep, such as possibly following a cohort of students through their four years of college to get a better look at the sleep and stress levels instead of only acknowledging the last two weeks. Another direction for further research would be studying whether male or female undergraduate students differ in sleep and stress. Aside from future directions within different types of samples, perhaps modifying the sleep and stress scales would be a beneficial way of modifying our study. One way to do this would be by changing the wording to see if the participants are paying attention or if they are just pressing a number on the scale. This can be done by adding an extra question that has nothing to do with the study such as asking them to click five on the scale if they are reading that specific question. Also, we should consider the possibility of confounding variables that could have affected the study.
Considering the results, there is a relationship between sleep and stress. However, this is not to say that correlation is causation. These results could implicate that better sleeping habits could help undergraduate students manage through stressful events that may occur in their college years. Or rather a decreased amount of stress could aid in making sleeping habits healthier. These results could also help increase awareness of the amount of stress and lack of sleep undergraduate students experience. In doing so, it will help find ways to aid the students who are suffering from stress and sleep deprivation. Overall, it appears that students who have a healthier sleeping pattern exhibit a decreased amount of stress. Therefore, there is a negative correlation between amount of sleep and stress levels.
- Brougham, R. R., Zail, C. M., Mendoza, C. M., & Miller, J. R. (2009). Stress, sex differences, and coping strategies among college students. Current Psychology,28(2), 85-97. doi:10.1007/s12144-009-9047-0
- Hershner, S. D., & Chervin, R. D. (2014). Causes and consequences of sleepiness among college students. Nature and Science of Sleep, 6, 73–84. http://doi.org/10.2147/NSS.S62907
- Lee, S., Wuertz, C., Rogers, R., & Chen, Y. (2013). Stress and sleep disturbances in female college students. American Journal of Health Behavior,37(6), 851-858. doi:10.5993/ajhb.37.6.14
- Lund, H. G., Reider, B. D., Whiting, A. B., & Prichard, J. R. (2010). Sleep patterns and predictors of disturbed sleep in a large population of college students. Journal of Adolescent Health,46(2), 124-132. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.06.016
- Pilcher, J. J., Ginter, D. R., & Sadowsky, B. (1997). Sleep quality versus sleep quantity: Relationships between sleep and measures of health, well-being and sleepiness in college students. Journal of Psychosomatic Research,49(6), 583-596. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/S0022-3999(97)00004-4