Sleep and Medical Students: A Tumultuous Relationship

A common experience for many medical students is an unhealthy sleeping habit. A tumultuous relationship with sleep.

It is a universal fact.

What’s more?

It is particularly ironic when you realize that it is the set of people who are the most conscious of sleep’s benefits that are the very ones who often fight tooth and nail to get away from its allure.

Why would grown men and women beat themselves up and sometimes burst into tears when they “oversleep”? I mean, your body gets the rest it deserves and you are making a fuss about it. Are you some low-key masochist or something?

You be sufferhead?

I have had non-medic friends bring up these questions many times.

I try to explain why to them. However, more times than often, all I get to elicit are either furrowed eyebrows, forced smiles, or in the less subtle ones, counter-arguments.

I don’t blame them anyway. You have to be in here to know why. And if you are still following and are wondering why many medical students have a tumultuous relationship with sleep, well…

Four words.

The Fear of Failure.

Sleep is the enemy. The unholy mistress that buries your head in her warm, scented bosom. With each caress by her silky hands, she entrances you and fills your head with a false sense of pleasure and security. Until ball-busting reality checks come beckoning.

In barrages.

Near-incapacitating barrages.


You come to class and realize that topics that took you two weeks to grasp are ‘covered’ in less than two hours. And the lecturers recommend that you even do some extra reading if you want to have a shot at passing.

More extra reading if you are aiming for a distinction.


You do care.

About distinctions and whatnot.

“Discipline is painful, but so are regret and failure. Choose your pain wisely.”

But pain is still pain. Painful.

Moreover, it is even worse that you have been singled out as an elite student all your life – or for the most of it – and the whole world has their eyes on you. The promising budding doctor. You do not want anything to impede the momentum you’ve got going.

People are expecting so much from you. Parents, teachers, and non-medic friends. You are the “brilliant senior boy/girl” who made them all feel “dumb” in school. The one person they can undoubtedly bet on to make ground-breaking academic exploits.

You are also expecting so much from you. Chances are you have defined yourself by academic excellence for so long that anything less shatters your self-esteem. The reason is simple.

You have not quite made peace with the fact that life is a rollercoaster of the good, the bad and everything in-between.

And life is bound to happen to you at some point. I don’t mean to be a prophet of doom.

Newsflash! Medical school also happens to be the ultimate repository of reality checks.

The ultimate leveler.

So you go sleep-starved for days on end, studying and cramming all there is to know. And your robust face suffers for it. It doesn’t matter how much gleam your pomade ‘bestows’ on your face when you freshen up every morning. Your daytime sleepiness gives you away every time you step out. You doze off at the slightest convenience – in class, postings, and even in church.

Your stress levels rage furiously. You are always one stressor away from going batshit on everyone or breaking down in a puddle of tears. The weeks seem long and once in a while, the country decides to test your sanity and patience by sprinkling strikes here and there on your academic calendar.

Isn’t that a good thing? A break?

Well, ideally.

But a few days’ respite – if you decide to embrace it – allows you to taste the goodness of freedom and makes the coming days of work even more unbearable. Why? It plummets your drive and then you have to take your time to get your engines revving again. You still have so much to cover.

Eventually, exams come and if you are lucky, your scores may creep into the 70s and 80s.

A positive reward. The opium that spurs you to continue.

The toxic cycle continues until you are stopped dead in your tracks by a shocking reality check or much later in the future. Like a 50+ score. Or lower.

Or you do not care anyway.

Perhaps due to incorrigible unseriousness, other legitimate engagements that take your time, or a settlement for academic mediocrity after coming to terms with your strength and the effort you can spare for the big books.

“Àṣejù nì distinction eléyìí jọ̀ọ́!”, you say. “Let me just get my 50 and go.”

When the night beckons, you read on your bed or close to it and sleep for 8 hours daily. It doesn’t bother you that you doze off almost as soon as you open your books to read. Or that more than half your reading time is spent browsing the Internet. You wake up extra refreshed and look good day after day.

You barely cover.

Until examinations come knocking.

When your dumbness and purulence hit you right in the crotch. The stark realization of impending failure burns into your retinas. By then, you know it is time to go on a marathon to salvage whatever you have going for you.

If you carry that aggregate score into the final exams, you are as good as gone, bruh.

15/40 kẹ̀?😂

In about a week or two to go, the bucketload of stuff you have to cram hits you. Hard.

You have to find solutions.


Caffeine. Energy drinks. And if you are drawn by the allure of the other side, something much more sinister.

You down different energy drinks like water – Monster, Redbull, Predator, Fearless. Everything.


You wade through the palpitations they induce with clenched teeth, struggle to stash stuff away somewhere in your brain and hope that somehow, you can yank them out when it matters in the examination hall.

On occasion, you might even have serious sessions of introspection and lamentations and even question why we have to sleep.

Your eyes are swollen from sleep-starvation. Serial overnight reading makes you look unkempt – like a vagabond. Because you have not visited home nor slept on your bed in days. Even your friends struggle to recognize you.

However, retention is a different ball game entirely. And the truth is that lack of sleep reduces your retention ability. But then, too much sleep rids you of time to read too.

It is a paradox, really.

In the end, you just fall somewhere along the spectrum and hope that you pull through by a miracle.

Sometimes, you do by a hair’s breadth. Some other times? Not quite.

The whole head comes off.

And you restart from the last checkpoint.

If there is a checkpoint.


For the most part, something along these two scenarios is the story of an average medical student’s tumultuous relationship with sleep.

We all fall somewhere along the “sleep-study” spectrum. And only a lucky few of us ever find the sweet spot or what seems to be like it.

In the end, what matters is finding what works best for you – whether by introspection, consulting seniors, or trial and error – and sticking to it.

Most importantly, one ought not to yield to unnecessary comparison.

You will be shocked at how you can plan and execute the same exact thing as someone else and still end up with shockingly different results.

But that is a story for another day.

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