Noisy dorms — Help, I can't sleep!

Hi Alice,

I cannot sleep in my dorm room. It is always loud. I have read many articles about sleep hygiene, but no matter how healthy and relaxed I am before trying to sleep, I will wake up whenever there is noise.

I sleep with earplugs, but they do not block out the noise well enough. I wake up exhausted every day and it is seriously interfering with my ability to study, participate in activities, and otherwise enjoy life. I was very happy at my school until I had to move into this noisy room. After a visit to the campus health service, they diagnosed my insomnia as "situational" (due to the room) and recommended that I sleep in a quiet location, but that is not an option as I cannot prevent the noise.

I was not experiencing much stress at all in life until I moved into the room where I could no longer sleep. When I am stressed, I am always able to sleep fine as long as it is quiet; if it is noisy, I cannot sleep no matter how relaxed I am.

Dear Reader,

Given your current situation, you may not be surprised to learn that sleep deprivation is common among university students. In fact, it's estimated that up to 60 percent of college students don't get sufficient sleep. Although college is a place of academic excellence, personal growth, and life in the residence halls, it can also interrupt your routine. As you have likely experienced, there are various advantages to living in a residence hall, such as meeting dozens of interesting people, collaborating with new friends, and participating in fun activities; however, close living quarters can present some challenges, key one being poor sleep quality. Living in a raucous environment can be frustrating and can lead to sleep deprivation. It's clear that you’ve tried a number of strategies to block or minimize the noise around you, but there may be some additional strategies you can try.

Clinically, insomnia, which is a common sleep order, is classified into two different ways: acute (fewer than 30 days) and chronic (30 days or more). The diagnosis you received from your campus health service of  "situational" insomnia falls into the former category of acute insomnia. Situational insomnia is defined as poor or interrupted sleep due to specific circumstances, such as living in a residence hall. The first line of treatment for acute insomnia is non-pharmacologic, meaning not using prescription drugs, and includes interventions such as: cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), relaxation therapy, physical activity, limiting time in bed, avoiding stimuli such as light and sound, and keeping your sleep schedule as consistent as possible. When environmental and situational stressors that cause acute insomnia remain unresolved, it's possible for acute insomnia to become chronic insomnia. Although over-the-counter sleep aids such as melatonin can help, they're not intended as long-term solutions. 

Here are additional non-pharmacologic tips that may help you get a good night’s sleep:

  • Wear noise-cancelling headphones: Even if you’re not playing music, the headphones can drown out a loud roommate or noises from the hall. Some people find these more effective than earplugs.
  • Use a noise machine: These nifty devices play soothing sounds and can help drown out outside noise.
  • Turn on the fan: Similar to the noise machine, a fan can help drown out background noise.
  • Talk to your Resident Advisor (RA): Your RA can speak with the noisy residents and help you sort out any issues with your housing, if you need to relocate.
  • Minimize naps: Long naps (longer than 30 minutes) during the day can make it harder to fall asleep at night.
  • Go to sleep at the same time every night: Keeping a regular bedtime can stabilize your circadian rhythm and make it easier to fall asleep.
  • Keep a sleep diary: Try keeping a sleep diary for a week or two to determine if there are other factors impacting your sleep.
  • Consider informing the individual(s): As you have struggled to get your ZZZs for a frustrating amount of time, if you know the individual(s) causing disturbances and impacting your sleep quality, you could approach them in a polite, non-confrontational, calm manner and kindly request that they minimize the noise. It's possible that they’re not aware of the impact they're having on your sleep hygiene.

In addition to speaking with your RA, and possibly the individual(s) causing the disturbance, it's good to know your hall’s quiet hours policy. If the noise occurs during quiet hours, your RA may be able to report the noisy neighbor(s) to the housing authorities. To build your evidence base, it's wise to keep a log of when the disruptions occur and the type of noises you hear. Are any other residents bothered by the noise? Perhaps other students can submit complaints as well.

If all else fails, you may want to request a housing transfer and cite the noise as a reason. You've done the footwork of seeking a medical consultation already, so be sure to include your medical documentation in your request. Again, keeping a log of your sleep, or lack thereof, can help when you state your case. If the spaces are available, university housing will likely be able to accommodate your request. If you cannot move to a different room, you may consider off-campus housing as well. Either way, it's vital that you find a space that provides the silence and solitude that you need.

Last updated Oct 21, 2022
Originally published May 08, 2014

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