Dubar: Psychological Well-Being and Sleep Health in Troubling Times

Royette Dubar

Royette Dubar

Assistant Professor of Psychology Royette Dubar leads the Sleep & Psychosocial Adjustment Lab at Wesleyan. She’s a developmental psychologist who studies the links between sleep and a range of indices, including emotional well-being, academic performance, quality of interpersonal relationships, and technology use, in adolescents and emerging adults. She has just launched a new study on the psychosocial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic among adolescents and the challenges that come with it, especially for college seniors.

Your research focuses on sleep and psychosocial well-being among young people ages 15 to 29 years old. The pandemic and near-global shutdown has been extremely disruptive to everyday life, and many college students are struggling with needing to abruptly leave their campus homes and transition to distance learning. How do you anticipate this will affect them?

While at this point, I think many students have come to understand the motivations for suspending in-person classes, the move to distance learning has, undoubtedly, been generally upsetting and stressful for students. One of the factors that leads to stress is not being able to control what’s going on. At Wesleyan, as at numerous other colleges and universities, students did not have much time to process the switch to online learning and it was not a decision they could control.

We know that not all students are fortunate enough to be able to make arrangements to go home on such short notice. [Through a petition process, Wesleyan has made it possible for a small number of students, who are housing-insecure or unable to return home, to remain on campus.] Students may also feel especially overwhelmed if they have limited resources in a range of areas. These can be tangible resources, like money; interpersonal resources, such as having someone to talk to; or even psychological resources—having the psychological strength and coping strategies to deal with this change.

In addition, a residential college campus is a very intimate social environment, and we know that within a university setting, interpersonal relationships are extremely important for emotional adjustment. Furthermore, as students often use their relationships to navigate their sense of identity and belonging, not having that direct contact with roommates and friends can potentially be detrimental to their overall well-being. This is especially true for seniors, who expected this last semester to be a heightened time of social engagement with friends and peers, visiting places for the last time, etc. For them, particularly, knowing that they’re having to leave an environment they’re really comfortable in is heartbreaking. The loss of this interpersonal contact may impact students’ psychological well-being and sleep quality.

You have studied sleep and psychological well-being among young people in the context of a natural disaster. Are there any relevant lessons for the current situation?

The study we did looked at associations between the experience of a natural disaster and coping strategies, as well as possible links with sleep among high school-aged and college-aged students on my home island of Dominica. This was a cross-sectional study, so we can’t make conclusions about directionality or causation. One variable we looked at was rumination—replaying thoughts of an event over and over in one’s mind. Typically, rumination is considered a construct that has negative implications for well-being, because this cycle may prevent an individual from adjusting to whatever negative situation they’re going through. Not surprisingly, in our study, we found that individuals who scored high on rumination also reported higher scores on PTSD symptoms from the storm, but interestingly, these individuals also scored high on measures of post-traumatic growth (the belief that one’s psychological well-being is improved as a result of going through a negative/traumatic experience). We know that individuals who are struggling to process a traumatic event often have contradicting or mixed emotions, and these can serve as a vehicle to promote personal growth. For example, in reading the news, you might feel really overwhelmed about everything that’s going on. But at the same time, that negative feeling might motivate you to reach out to a neighbor, or to do something for yourself that brings you calm.

How can faculty help to mitigate the negative psychological effects of this experience on students?

I believe that many faculty members, myself included, are using this first week of distance learning as an adjustment week, helping students to grieve and heal by talking about things going on in their lives. (This was recommended to me by a colleague, Assistant Professor of Psychology Alexis May, who is a clinical psychologist). We’re trying to let students know that they have the support of their professors, and that we’re all in this together. I know a lot of faculty are offering students extra flexibility, and are working to make the syllabus more manageable. Our students may have circumstances in their lives that we don’t know about, so we must create space so they can share with us if they’re comfortable. Just being empathetic with our students is really necessary at this point.

We’re all spending a lot more time on our technological devices these days, with education and every other aspect of our lives having moved online. What does the research say about the effects of technology use on sleep?

There is a good bit of research on technology use and sleep. It’s a field that’s evolving as rapidly as the technology we use, though sometimes the research lags behind a bit.  Many studies have focused on the amount of time individuals spend on technology. One theory is that there’s a sort of displacement going on, where the more time we dedicate to technology use, regardless of the type of technology, that’s time taken away from other activities, including sleep. We often don’t prioritize sleep in our lives, and this is especially true for people who are overwhelmed with other demands like school or work. There’s also research looking at bedtime procrastination—delaying the time it takes to initiate sleep (e.g., because we’re sitting in bed using our phones). And most of the content we encounter on our phones is not very soothing these days.

Another line of research looks at the content and context of technology use, particularly close to bedtime. You might see a different effect on sleep quality if you’re playing a highly arousing video game just before bed versus watching a relaxing TV show. Given that we live in a world where information is readily accessible at our fingertips, we need to be extremely diligent about pacing our exposure to news and media content that can be upsetting and depressing. Being exposed to updates about the coronavirus pandemic can motivate us to keep ourselves and loved ones safe. However, constant access to that type of information can stir up feelings of anger, frustration, confusion, and fear that might be debilitating to the point where we are not able to create that sense of calm that is required for a good night’s sleep. This can lead to a vicious cycle because when our sleep health is compromised, we tend to be more susceptible to negative emotions.

For people whose lives have been turned upside down, do you have general advice about maintaining good sleep health?

Try to keep a routine of consistent bedtimes and wake times in order to create a sense of normalcy when it comes to sleep hygiene. This is always valuable, but it’s especially important at a time when everything feels like it’s turned upside down. Also, try not to spend too much time on your phone engaging with upsetting news or information. Many smart phones have good time management features that can be helpful in limiting exposure to news and information that’s detrimental to mental health.

What are you researching currently? 

We launched a study earlier this year looking at associations among negative life experiences, spirituality, and sleep. The idea for the study came to me at church when my pastor talked about using prayer as a form of coping (particularly when we are going through certain experiences that keep us up at night). Our subjects include people who have had a negative experience (e.g., change in living and health conditions). We’re interested in how spirituality might be linked to sleep, perhaps through the use of religious practices as a form of coping. We’re also looking at age as a possible factor that may influence results because the significance of religion and spirituality may change as we age. Although this is not a question that we can assess with this study, I think it is interesting to think about the different coping strategies that individuals of different faiths are currently using to make sense of this pandemic.