Date Presented 04/22/2023

Graduate students may have specific roles and stressors that affect their ability to sleep, which further increases their perceived stress levels. A lack of resources, supports, and cultural beliefs that promote positive sleep habits or coping skills are barriers faced by many graduate students, which in turn affect their engagement in occupations. Thus, the purpose of this study is to examine graduate students’ coping strategies and sleep from both self-perception and psychophysiology.

Primary Author and Speaker: Megan C. Chang

Additional Authors and Speakers: Sherlene Hung, Anna Winsemius, Liam Wong, Maria Wong

Introduction: Sleep affects graduate students in their occupational roles, mental health, and physical health (Billman, 2020; Saruhanjan et al., 2021; Tester & Foss, 2018). Specifically, graduate students are vulnerable to the health and occupational performance issues that the lack of sleep causes, with many not feeling well-rested during the day and also feeling stressed (Allen et al., 2021; Yang & Smallfield, 2020). Previous studies have found connections linking poor sleep quality and high levels of stress through objective and subjective sleep measures (Alotaibi et al., 2020; Kalmbach et al., 2018), but more research is needed to examine how coping different strategies impacts sleep problems and stress responses among graduate students. Methodology: This cross-sectional study includes self-report measures (sleep, daytime sleepiness, coping strategies) and an objective measure to test stress responses (electrodermal activity, EDA) in the laboratory. Both snowball and convenience sampling were used. Qualtrics, an online platform, was used to collect demographic data and self-report standardized questionnaires, which included: Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (Buyesse et al.,1989), Epworth Sleepiness Scale (Johns, 1991), Perceived Stress Scale (Cohen et al.,1983), and the Brief-COPE (Carver, 1997). For the psychophysiological experiment, the protocol included a Trier Social Stress Test (Kirschbaum et al., 1993). EDA was collected continuously with 1000Hz sampling rate via PsychLab Data Acquisition. PsychLab Data Analysis was used for signal processing to generate analytical ready variables.

RESULTS: Twenty-nine participants completed the survey and of those, 19 completed the lab experiment. Defined by PSQI global score, 11 (38%) were good sleepers and 18 were bad sleepers. Bad sleepers reported higher levels of perceived stress than good sleepers (p = .038). In terms of coping strategy, good sleepers used religion as a coping strategy significantly more often than bad sleepers (p = .011). Lower sleep quality was found to be positively associated with self distraction rated in Brief-COPE (r = .435; p = .018). EDA results showed that higher skin conductance levels (SCL), indicators of stress responses, are associated with increased sleep duration (r = -.576; p = .010) and better sleep efficiency (r = -.494; p = .032); however, no statistical significance in SCLs between good and bad sleepers was found.

DISCUSSIONS: Results suggest that sleep should be prioritized in the graduate student population as it impacts not only psychophysiological functioning but also coping strategies. Occupational therapists working with this population need to develop a comprehensive client profile to assess existing sleep patterns and daytime sleepiness to prevent the development of sleep disorders students are at risk for, which may cause ripple effects affecting occupational engagements. Furthermore, practitioners should advocate for college campuses to provide resources to address student-specific stressors.


Allen, H. K., Barrall, A. L., Vincent, K. B., & Arria, A. M. (2021). Stress and burnout among graduate students: Moderation by sleep duration and quality. International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 28(1), 21–28.

Yang, K. M., & Smallfield, S. (2020). Exploring sleep health among occupational therapy students. Journal of Occupational Therapy Education, 4(1).