Last fall, Ewan Johnson found that getting a good night’s sleep was becoming increasingly difficult. Johnson, then a junior studying strategic communications and political science at Temple University, was juggling three jobs and leadership positions in his extracurricular clubs on top of a full course load.
His stress levels skyrocketed.
Fitting eight hours of sleep into his busy schedule was already difficult for Johnson, who had struggled with insomnia since his freshman year at Temple. On bad nights, he estimated that he was getting only about four hours of shut-eye.
"I couldn’t sleep because my brain was always on the go," said Johnson, 22. "I was never present in the moment because I always had something to worry about — money, bills, classwork or personal relationships."
Academic pressure, social anxiety, homesickness, overbooked schedules and rising tuition costs are but a few of the factors that, experts say, are dialing up stress levels among college students. A survey of more than 1,000 freshmen found that a third of them believed that they couldn’t handle the stress of day-to-day life.
The stakes can be extraordinarily high at a time when more than a third of college students have a diagnosed mental-health condition, and suicide is the second-leading cause of deaths for teens and young adults.
To help students cope, some universities are introducing meditation and mindfulness apps, which research suggests may be an effective addition to more traditional mental health initiatives. Apps hold particular appeal because they can be used anywhere, at any time, by anyone with a smart phone.
7 in 10 undersleep
But on local college campuses, where students often face long waits to see mental health professionals at overwhelmed counseling centers, apps are far from a complete answer.
In a 2015 survey of Arizona State University students conducted by the American College Health Association, only 28% of students reported getting enough sleep to wake up feeling rested on five or more days out of a week. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that one out of five college students reported stress interfering with their sleep at least once a week.
On average, students were getting about seven hours of sleep, rather than the recommended nine. A 2014 study in Nature and Science of Sleep also found that 70% of college students reported getting insufficient sleep, mostly because going to bed late and waking up early for classes or jobs. Binge-drinking alcohol and caffeine as well as using technology before bed also affected sleep quantity and quality.
"The need for sleep actually goes back up during adolescence," said Phil Gehrman, a University of Pennsylvania assistant professor of psychology who studies sleep. "But we know from data on college students that while their need for sleep is up, their opportunity is going down. This can be crucial because your late teens and early 20s is the peak age of onset for a number of different mental health conditions, and not sleeping well can increase your risk of getting them."
Gehrman emphasized that there is no evidence that people adjust to getting less sleep over time.
"When we’re chronically sleep deprived, we lose our ability to gauge how impaired we are," he said. "And college is a time in your life where you want to be functioning mentally at a high level."
Studies suggest that meditation, which is booming in popularity, can decrease blood pressure, improve anxiety and depression, reduce loneliness — and lower stress levels and insomnia. The goal of meditation is to increase awareness and perspective, and it often starts with sitting in a quiet place, closing your eyes, calming the mind and focusing on breath.
Michael Baime, the director and founder of the Penn Program for Mindfulness, said that often when people struggle to fall sleep, it’s because there is something unpleasant or anxiety-provoking that is distracting them.
"Mindfulness practice is all about learning how to manage your attention instead of having it be hijacked and go to that thing that’s making us anxious or sad or angry," said Baime. But it’s not an easy or quick skill to learn; Baime’s popular eight-week mindfulness course includes 27 hours of class time.
"In a situation where people can’t fall asleep, we would have them take their attention away from the thoughts that are worrying them and toward something soothing, safe and comforting, like sensations of breath or of the body."
One of the ways that meditation helps decrease stress is by fostering neural circuits that make people more resilient to anxiety, said David Creswell, an associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University.
With stronger resilience neural circuits, it’s possible to bring the amygdala, a set of neurons in the brain linked with feelings of fear and stress, back into balance with the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that manages emotions and planning. Creswell’s research on meditation has suggested that the practice can reduce cortisol, the hormone that acts as the body’s alarm system by triggering the "fight-or-flight" instinct, and blood pressure in response to stressful activities.
"The skills that you’re learning in mindfulness or meditation practices change how your brain and body responds to stress," he said. "You can train yourself to bring your attention back to what you’re experiencing, to really be present. You’re learning to be equanimous to your experience, whether it’s positive or negative or neutral."
In other words, you learn to calmly observe what’s going on, rather than immediately reacting.
One of the most common ways for people to get acquainted with meditation these days is through their smartphones, said Gehrman. Apps provide guided sessions, often accompanied by soothing noises or breathing exercises that target focus, exercise or sleep improvement. Plenty of people are interested; as of December, Headspace had just under 40 million free downloads and over a million paid subscribers.
A recent study published in Mindfulness, a peer-reviewed academic journal on psychology, suggests that meditation apps may be an effective way to manage stress, with students reporting significant improvements in depressive symptoms adjustment, resilience and mindfulness.
Baime said that like most skills, meditation can be difficult to master. Using apps to practice in a situation that isn’t stressful or threatening can be helpful — used correctly.
"I wouldn’t recommend doing something that’s interactive, like pushing buttons, scrolling or watching a video," Baime said. "The best way to use a smartphone is for spoken or audio guidance that helps you focus in a gentle but steady way."
In February, Temple introduced to students a free subscription to Headspace, a popular app that helps users learn how to meditate for stress relief, among other benefits. Students can access the app on iPods available during walk-in hours at Tuttleman Counseling Services. Last month, the university expanded the partnership with Headspace to give student athletes access to the app on their smartphones.
"This is a pilot program and we are evaluating its value to see if it’s worth making available" more widely, said Ray Betzner, assistant vice president for university communications. "We want to know if it actually helps students, rather than make students pay for something through their fees and find out that it doesn’t work."
In February, Johnson turned to a therapist he had been seeing outside of Temple’s counseling services for help. He began confiding in her about his anxieties, and she put together a treatment plan for him that included a free meditation and mindfulness app called Tide.
Like other meditation apps, Tide offers a variety of calming sounds, like "rain falling on an umbrella" or "windy mountain," along with a timer. It also includes a breathing exercise.
Universities that currently offer their students free subscriptions to paid meditation apps include Johns Hopkins University and Carnegie Mellon. Boston University offers a subscription to their faculty and staff.
"From what I know, ‘wind-downs’ is one of the top ways students are using the app," said Angie Lusk, program director of student affairs wellness initiatives at Carnegie Mellon. She said that since rolling out an institutional membership to Headspace last spring, students and staff have meditated for a total of over 720,000 minutes. "People are also using Headspace before they walk into an exam or start their homework to find their focus a little bit better."
But at Temple, some students say they would rather the Headspace money — Temple wouldn’t say what it is spending — go to increase regular counseling services.
Allie Rath, a 21-year-old junior majoring in communication studies, said that she began using the free version of Headspace at home to fall asleep faster whenever she dealt with anxiety.
But going to the counseling center to use it on the center’s iPods would eliminate any advantage, she said. "Why would you go to North Philly to use it? It makes no sense."
Johnson said that his private therapist has been much more helpful than the Tide app in dealing with stress.
"Temple presenting Headspace as a solution is problematic when it’s not invested in real solutions," he said. "If you need to put money somewhere, put it towards real resources. I want to hold the university accountable."