It’s just after lunchtime on a Blue day. Your teacher is in the middle of a history lesson, and try as you might to concentrate, you feel your eyelids start to droop. Though you attempt to keep your posture upright and your eyes on the projector, you begin sinking lower and lower into the seat. Your concentration withers away, bit by precious bit, and when you wake, you find that you’ve missed half of what your teacher was saying on ––what was it again? Right, Southern secession.
If this feels familiar, you are likely used to the feelings of frustration and bewilderment that come with falling asleep in class. While it is associated with laziness, boredom, or a lack of motivation, that isn’t always the case. Oftentimes several factors can combine to make staying present and focused during the day an arduous task. And guess what? Due to the numerous events that have taken place in 2020, those factors have only been aggravated.
Let’s begin with the most obvious zapper of alertness: longer class periods. We know why they’ve been implemented , but why do they have to feel. So. LONG?! I know I’m not the only one who’s fidgeted in their seat and counted the minutes until I could walk around the halls again. As it turns out, sitting at a desk for an extended period of time can impede our concentration more than we think. When we sit still, our heart rate tends to slow down, making us more relaxed and sleepy. The Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety writes, “An insufficient blood flow, specifically blood that is returning to the heart from the lower legs, causes blood to pool. Pressure on the underside of the thighs from a seat…. can further aggravate this. The result can be swollen or numb legs… Also, a reduced blood supply to the muscles accelerates fatigue. This lower blood supply is why an employee who sits all day long doing little physical work often feels tired at the end of a work shift.” This explains why we’re itching to have our last-name sections called first so that we can quit the classroom after our last period.
Several teachers have noted that students’ tiredness tends to increase in the afternoon as opposed to morning, and they cited lunchtime as a culprit in addition to sitting too long. According to Mrs. Unger, our biology teacher, your brain sends chemical signals to your stomach telling it to digest after you’ve eaten, which can cause extra drowsiness.
Back to the subject of longer classes: not only do they have a physical effect, but sometimes they can feel mentally impossible to bear due to the teenage attention span. According to brainbalance.com, the average attention span of a person can be quantified by multiplying their age by 2 or 3 (and some even put the upper limit at 5). So let’s take a sixteen-year-old and estimate their average attention span. On a good day, that amounts to 48 minutes. If they’ve had extra coffee and are feeling super motivated, about 80 minutes. (I hope you had a good laugh at that one). But if this sixteen-year old is like a majority of teenagers, running on 5 hours of sleep and two cans of Kickstart, then the most you can expect from them at a time is 32 minutes.
Which leads me to my next point: lack of sleep. I know you’re probably rolling your eyes at this, but don’t click off yet, because there’s actually some pretty interesting statistics on this. According to the CDC, people aged 13-18 should be getting 8-10 hours of sleep. Now take a wild guess as to how many teenagers actually get the minimum recommended hours of sleep. Did you guess less than 30 percent? Congratulations, you get an extra cup of coffee. The CDC reports that 72.7% of high school students reported not getting enough sleep. But what’s the big deal? Surely we can just power through with extra caffeine and then sleep in on the weekends? If you want to go through an endless cycle of caffeine highs and crashes, late nights, and a general feeling of exhaustion all day, then technically, yes. Unfortunately, that doesn’t lend itself well to efficiency, productivity, or general well-being.
But how are we supposed to get enough sleep when we have so much homework, extracurriculars, and other responsibilities? Just reading that question probably accelerated your heart rate a bit. Not only does stress tend to exhaust us mentally and emotionally, but the physical effects of stress can also contribute to a lack of attentiveness. “Stress … increases cortisol levels [and] can keep us awake at night, disrupt sleep patterns, and prevent us from getting the recommended hours,” Mrs. Unger, our biology teacher, explains. Cortisol is a hormone produced by our adrenal glands, and, in a fight-or-flight situation, can actually be pretty helpful. But we’re in school in the twenty-first century, not cavemen defending ourselves from bears. Therefore, having an excess of cortisol for an extended period of time when you’re not in any mortal danger is useless at best and harmful at worst. So, our bodies are producing an excess of a hormone that contributes toward a lack of shut-eye, which makes us tired, which makes us stressed –– because we’re tired and we need energy to get work done –– and it’s a continuous vicious cycle.
Another factor that contributes to stress, lack of sleep, and lack of attentiveness in class is our electronic devices. (Cue booing sound effect). Don’t worry, I won’t go into too much detail here, as you’ve likely heard all of these. Not only are our phones and laptops with us 24/7, not only are the notifications usually turned on (providing distractions), and not only do they produce blue light (which disrupts the body’s production of melatonin, a sleep hormone), but they also alert us to all the news happening around the world. And, unfortunately, most news is bad news, particularly in 2020. Cue more anxiety, even less sleep, and even more distracted minds in class. And it’s not like we can escape the news as in previous years. Any form of dreamy escapism is near impossible when you have a tangible reminder of the times we live in strapped over your face and the faces of everyone around you for eight hours a day.
Far from only being a perpetual, emotionally-taxing visual, masks might actually have to do more with fatigue and absent-mindedness at second glance. When our teachers and peers wear garments that obscure their mouths, it muffles the sound of talking and makes it impossible to read people’s lips. This forces us to strain our ears to listen, which, done for 8+ hours a day in 90 minute segments, tends to get a little old. We have to strain to hear our teachers’ lessons, let alone comprehend them.
While doing my research, I recalled that when in class, I sometimes get a feeling of lightheadedness, which makes me feel more tired. I searched the question “Do masks limit one’s oxygen intake” about 50 different times and clicked on about 10 different websites, with none of them providing evidence that masks restrict one’s capacity to breathe. (It’s a topic that I might delve into deeper, however, so stay tuned). However, I did find one article suggesting that wearing a mask can cause a psychological block that makes you feel like your breathing is limited, causing us to breathe less in response, which could possibly explain why we feel out of breath with masks on and why we feel fine as soon as we lift them off. “Humans in general are pretty bad at breathing deeply and fully (even without our masks on), and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if masks are making that problem even worse. All the more reason for us to practice mindful breathing as often as possible!” says Ms. Jones, our Ancient and Medieval History teacher.
Because there was only one article on this (every other one vehemently denied masks having any effect on one’s breathing, psychological or otherwise), I want to do more research to get to the bottom of this hypothesis, but for now, that is all I could find.
So, what are we to do? Are we doomed to remain forever trapped in an endless sluggish race of stress, work, and fatigue? No. This year has been one in which we have less control over our circumstances than normal, but we are not helpless to alleviate our situations. First and foremost: I know I’ve been ranting on the problems that some administrative measures have caused, but our teachers and faculty are here to help us. Especially as of late, teachers have been giving us more chances to take laps and stretch when needed in order to keep us alert. And if you feel like you need a break, it never hurts to ask. (Your teachers probably want a bit of a break as well!)
As for stress, we have several supportive counselors and administrators who prioritize our mental and emotional well-being. It’s been proven that talking to loved ones or people you trust to work through your stresses and anxieties produces a hormone called oxytocin, which (to vastly simplify its effects), enforces positive communication and feelings of trust, which –– you guessed it –– can help to alleviate anxiety.
As for what we ourselves can do, we have the power to make decisions that positively enhance our performance. On the physical side, engaging in physical exercise for just 20 minutes a day holds numerous benefits, including elevating your heart rate during a workout, which keeps your resting heart rate lower, which helps you sleep better and get enough rest to pay attention in class and work efficiently. Aerobic exercise can also relieve feelings of stiffness, as you stretch and engage your muscles when working out, which improves general blood flow (to eliminate the first problem I mentioned in this article). As for its mental effects, exercise also facilitates the production of endorphins, which is another one of our brain’s “happy hormones,” thereby improving our mood.
Also in line with physical control, we can increase our water intake in order to improve general body function and keep us awake. (I would elaborate on the numerous benefits of getting enough water, but it would likely be redundant and this article is already too long). As for melatonin disruption, we cannot abandon our devices, but we can become smarter users. In addition to turning off notifications while we work and placing them in another room before bed (all things you’ve heard numerous times from your parents), we can also do our digital homework first, allowing our brains to calm down from blue-light stimulation and begin producing melatonin at regular intervals. Unfortunately, we have no power over the masks, but at the very least we can remember to take deep breaths every once in a while so as to not become light-headed.
As for the mental side, it’s easier for some than it is for others to control their thoughts and think positively. And that’s in a regular year. Mrs. Ferguson, our AP European history teacher, notes that general “fatigue comes from the mental toll that the mitigation measures cause on a daily basis.” Again –– this is one area of our lives we cannot remove. However, we have control over our thoughts, and it is possible for each and every one of us to take 5 minutes a day and reflect on what we’re thankful for, give ourselves a pep-talk for an upcoming test or exam, or even just clear our heads.
“But I don’t have enough time for all of that!” you protest. On the contrary –– you don’t have time NOT to. Exercising, taking time to breathe, and getting your emotions off your chest will further increase your efficiency, meaning you spend less time with your books and are able to get more done in a faster time, as your physical, mental, and emotional states will all be improved, which work in tandem to accelerate productivity. More importantly, however, all of this contributes to you taking care of yourself, which should be top priority, especially now.
Jesus once said, “This, too, shall pass.” 2020, the pandemic, and the mitigation measures will all come to pass as well. If you take nothing else from this article, keep that in the back of your mind.