Written by: Lana Adler
Updated March 10, 2021
Regardless of if they're in basic training, deployed, or stationed at home, people in the military can find it difficult to get enough sleep. Long hours, stressful environments, and high rates of conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder all contribute to high rates of sleep issues in the military. In fact, insufficient sleep is so common in the armed forces that 62% of service members (1) average less than six hours of sleep per night.
Quality sleep is vital for physical and mental health, so prioritizing sleep in members of the military is a matter of both safety and national security. Learning to sleep well in stressful environments can help troops maximize readiness and mission execution.
How Soldiers Sleep in Stressful Environments
Research has shown that sleep is vital in maintaining peak athletic performance (2) and quick reaction times (3). A recent update to the Army’s training field manual acknowledges the importance of sleep and includes a new section on sleep readiness (4). The Army lays out three strategies for sleep readiness: creating environments that promote healthy sleep, defining the role of leadership in prioritizing sleep, and planning for periods of insufficient sleep.
While training leadership to prioritize and promote healthy sleep in soldiers is important, the military acknowledges that in many cases sleep deprivation is inevitable. Several strategies are suggested to compensate for sleep deprivation in training and deployment operations.
During missions that require sleep deprivation, the Army suggests naps to increase wakefulness and improve performance. Short power naps are encouraged whenever possible.
If a soldier’s mission allows little time for predictable nighttime sleep, the Army suggests taking the longest nap possible whenever time is available. If necessary, the Army indicates that a combination of napping and caffeine can help servicemembers improve performance on short notice.
Training for Sleep Deprivation
Banking sleep involves sleeping for longer than usual for multiple nights in a row prior to starting a new mission. Sleep banking improves performance and reduces the amount of sleep needed to recover after a mission is completed.
To bank enough sleep, the Army recommends that prior to a mission soldiers get up to 10 hours in bed per night for at least a week. While banking sleep, soldiers should try to go to sleep earlier and wake up at their usual time each morning to avoid disrupting the body’s circadian rhythm.
Physical Fitness and Reverse Training Schedules
Obtaining sufficient exercise is an important part of sleep health. Exercise can help people fall asleep faster (5), decrease nighttime awakenings, and reduce daytime fatigue. It’s important to be careful about when a person exercises though, as exercising too close to bedtime can make it more difficult to fall asleep. The Army recommends 30-minute periods of exercise throughout the day to improve alertness, stopping at least a few hours before lights out.
Another way to counter the effects of sleep deprivation in the military is to use reverse training schedules. Reverse training schedules shift the time of training sessions from the morning to the afternoon. The Army explains that delaying training better aligns with the body’s natural circadian rhythm and allows soldiers more time to sleep in.
Learning to Fall Asleep Fast
Creating the optimal sleep environment can help soldiers fall asleep fast. Although flexibility is always important in the military, most sleep locations can be improved by taking a few basic steps that help reduce the time it takes to fall asleep:
- Reduce Noise: Try to nap and sleep as far away from loud noises as possible. When noise is unavoidable, soldiers may benefit from white noise generators and earplugs.
- Get Comfortable: Whenever possible, increase the comfort of the sleeping area. Finding a cool place to nap helps, as does finding clean and comfortable mattresses and sleeping clothes.
- Block out Light: Lights out means lights out. Any amount of light can disrupt circadian rhythms and make it more difficult to fall asleep. Blackout curtains, eye masks, or even a hat pulled down over the eyes can help reduce light that can keep soldiers awake.
Tips for Sleep Readiness
Developing good sleep habits before basic training or deployment can reduce sleep issues later on. Military OneSource, a service of the Department of Defense, recommends the following tips for practicing good sleep hygiene (6):
- Create a Routine: Schedule 60 to 90 minutes to relax before bed every night. Avoid stressful or energizing activities, and find things to do that help you wind down before getting into bed.
- Turn off Electronics: During your evening routine, avoid television and turn off your smartphone. These electronics can increase alertness and the light from these devices can make it more difficult to fall asleep.
- Find Relaxation: Find activities that relax your body and mind. Some people find it helpful to listen to soft music, read a book, or take a shower before bed.
The most important part of sleeping in stressful situations is to find strategies that work for you. Try different tips and strategies and see what helps the most. Your body will thank you on your next mission.
- https://www.health.mil/News/Articles/2020/07/20/MHS-addresses-sleep-in-the-military-through-sleep-studies Accessed on March 5, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29135639/ Accessed on March 5, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/14505597/ Accessed on March 5, 2021.
- https://armypubs.army.mil/epubs/DR_pubs/DR_a/ARN30714-FM_7-22-000-WEB-1.pdf Accessed on March 5, 2021.
- https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28458924/ Accessed on March 5, 2021.
- https://www.militaryonesource.mil/national-guard/psychological-health-program/physical-wellness/ Accessed on March 5, 2021.