Psychological needs, stress, sleep and exams


I’ve talked about psychological needs previously on this blog.

Psychological needs are experiences we need in order to grow and have wellbeing. If our psychological needs are not met, this leads to illness and poor wellbeing.

I’m a strong advocate for people learning more about these needs, in order to make more deliberate and intentional choices about how they will get these needs met. In fact, a consideration of psychological needs and their satisfaction is a part of my mental fitness model.

There are 11 psychological needs that I think are worth thinking about (that number changes as I read and learn more), but 3 that are widely studied and commonly accepted as being fairly universal, that is, applicable to just about everyone. They’ve emerged out of Self-determination theory.

These are:

Competence – ‘feeling capable of achieving desired outcomes’ – for example, I want to feel capable at my job and the other roles I play in life (committee member, friend, partner, son)

Autonomy – a sense of control and choice in one’s behaviour – for example, I want to feel like I have at least some control and choice in how my life unfolds.

Relatedness – ‘feeling close and connected with important others – for example, I want to feel like I belong and am liked/loved/respected/wanted by the people important to me.

I take the view that we are all driven, to varying degrees, to get these (and other) psychological needs met. Our behaviour and wellbeing over time can be partly understood in terms of trying to get these needs met. For example, I enjoy learning new things, which is a manifestation of my needs for competence. I’m motivated to work hard in my job, because I feel connected to the team here and want to remain connected. I try to manage my finances well, so I have the resources to be able to make important decisions in my life.

Psychological needs can be a useful framework from which to explore self-development and self-improvement. If we hold constant the idea that we have psychological needs, and getting those needs met will improve our wellbeing, then we can evaluate the various options in front of us in terms of likelihood of meeting those needs. Understanding we have psychological needs can help you make choices to improve your wellbeing.

Hence why I was interested to find this article by Campbell, Soenens, Beyers and Vansteenkiste (2018) that looked at the relationship between psychological need satisfaction, sleep, stress and daytime functioning in university students before, during and after exams. What interested me most was they were looking at psychological need satisfaction in the context of four things that university students know very well – sleep problems, stress, exams and daytime functioning.

The research team followed 121 students over 3-months, collecting regular measures of psychological need satisfaction, stress, sleep quality and quantity and daytime functioning. The middle month was an exam period. The team were interested in how these variables changed and interacted over the period leading into the exams, the exam period itself and the post-exam period. They were hoping that the insights gained could help contribute to interventions designed to assist students during such periods.


What did they find?

A few of their findings were consistent with what we would expect.

First, leading into the exam period stress levels increased, sleep got worse, and daytime functioning got worse. I think most students can attest to these kinds of changes.

Fortunately, leading out of the exam period, stress levels decreased, sleep got better and daytime functioning got better as well.

Changes in stress levels, sleep quality/quantity and daytime functioning appeared to be related to psychological needs satisfaction.

So in the lead-up to exams where students are:

  1. having their sense of competency challenged by trying to learn new stuff and having doubts about their ability
  2. having their sense of autonomy challenged by being restricted in their freedom, AND
  3. having their relatedness challenged by fewer opportunities for social interactions…….

they experience greater levels of stress, poorer daytime functioning and poorer sleep.

Now clarifying exactly the directions of these relationships is difficult and that is what the research team found. For example, there was evidence from their data that not getting your psychological needs met –> stress –> poor quality sleep. They also found that not getting your psychological needs met –> stress –> poorer daytime functioning. However there are limitations in their data and other studies have shown relationships working in a different direction: poor sleep –> not getting your psychological needs met.


What should I take away from this study?

There are a couple of key takeaways from this study that I think are important.

The first is that the challenges experienced leading into an exam period are perfectly normal and show resolution after the exam period. Those feelings of stress, sleep issues and poor daytime functioning you get in the lead-up to, and during the exam period may be the result of temporary challenges to you getting your psychological needs met. Knowing this is a temporary phenomenon might help you sit with it without the worry that something is ‘wrong’.

The second is that if you are struggling with high levels of stress, poor sleep and/or poor daytime functioning on an ongoing basis, then you might consider focusing in on getting your psychological needs met. This means creating opportunities to feel competent (e.g. focus on becoming a better student), opportunities to feel in charge of your own life (e.g. making deliberate and intentional choices) and opportunities to feel connected (e.g. increased communication with loved ones). Based on the results of the study explored in this post, a focus on psychological need satisfaction might be a viable avenue to improve stress levels, improve sleep and improve daytime functioning. A little bit of support for my assertion that understanding psychological needs is important.


Final thoughts

When you start educating yourself about how the different elements of your life are intertwined, you give yourself greater power in being able to change those things. In this post, we looked at a study that suggests psychological need satisfaction is an important predictor of stress, sleep and daytime functioning in university students. This gives you an alternative starting point for thinking about how to reduce stress and improve your sleep and functioning. If you want to read a bit more about psychological needs, try this earlier post of mine.


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Psychological Tools Research and Reports Research Digest

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