The demands of military life often get in the way of a full night’s sleep. Service members should get seven to eight hours of sleep per night, but most get less. On deployment, service members average just six and a half hours per 24-hour period. This can be a threat to mission readiness.
Many in uniform see the ability to operate on little to no sleep as a sign of strength. It isn’t. While missions sometimes get in the way of rest, sleep is a necessity like eating or drinking. You wouldn’t PT without water, so why train or execute a mission without sleep when you can avoid it?
Lack of sleep can impair your performance by slowing your reaction time and clouding your decision making. This makes mistakes more likely and might put you and your unit at risk. Over time, poor sleep habits can contribute to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke and diabetes.
Sleep problems can also be associated with diagnoses like depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A recent study found that 70 percent of active duty service members with sleep disorders also struggle with depression, PTSD or another psychological health concern.
For this reason, it is important to recognize the warning signs of sleep difficulties and talk to a health care provider about concerns.
Types of Sleep Disorders
Trouble sleeping can happen for physical or psychological reasons. The following is a list of the most common sleep disorders and their symptoms:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Difficulty staying asleep throughout the night
- Waking up too early
- Falling asleep at bad times, like when driving or at work (Narcolepsy)
- Lack of energy
- Trouble thinking clearly
- Difficulty keeping a regular sleep schedule (Shift Work Sleep disorder)
- Waking up somewhere different than where you fell asleep with no memory of how you got there
- Kicking or thrashing due to nightmares
- Sleep eating and sleep walking
- Excessive nightmares
- Sleep-related breathing disorders (Sleep Apnea)
- Daytime fatigue
- Pauses in breathing during sleep
- Choking noises while sleeping
- Loud snoring
- Sleep movement disorders
- Moving involuntarily during or prior to sleep
- Burning or itching inside your legs when lying down (Restless Leg Syndrome)
Sleep Disorder Treatments
If you are having trouble sleeping, it’s important to talk to a health care professional. You may need formal treatment, or your health care provider may guide you through changes in your routine. Your provider may suggest:
- Relaxation Training: Meditation, acupuncture, or breathing techniques to relax the mind and body
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia: During regular visits to a mental health care provider you will provide information about your sleep habits and work together to change the way you sleep. You may also keep a sleep diary.
- Medication: Prescription or over-the-counter medicine, taken under the supervision of a health care provider
- Medical device: A mouth guard or a CPAP machine, for example, may help your sleep difficulties
Sleep difficulties can sometimes be fixed with good sleep habits. This includes limiting screen time in the bedroom, avoiding naps late in the day, maintaining a regular sleep schedule, avoiding stimulants like coffee or nicotine in the evening and making your bedroom a calming place.
If you are experiencing sleep problems or feeling distress as the result of military service or other life stress, know that reaching out is a sign of strength. Talk to your health care provider, contact the Psychological Health Resource Center 24/7 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants. Call 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat. You can also see a list of key psychological health resources here.
Bolvin, D. B, Boudreau, P. (2014). Impacts of shift work on sleep and circadian rhythms. Pathologie Biologie. 62(5), 292-301. doi: 10.1016/j.patbio.2014.08.001
Troxel, W. M., Shih, R. A., Pedersen, E. R., Geyer, L., Fisher, M. P., Griffin, . . . Steinberg, P.S. (2015). Sleep in the military: Promoting healthy sleep among U.S. servicemembers. RAND Corporation.
Mysliwiec, V., Gill, J., Lee, H., Baxter, T., Pierce, R., Barr, T. L., . . . Roth, B. (2013). Sleep disorders in US military personnel: A high rate of comorbid insomnia and obstructive sleep apnea. Chest, 144(2), 549–557. doi: 10.1378/chest.13-0088
Wickens, C. D., Hutchins, S. D., Laux, L., & Sebok, L. (2015). The impact of sleep disruption on complex cognitive tasks: A meta-analysis. Human Factors 57(6), 930 – 946. doi: 10.1177/0018720815571935
Vergun, David (2017). Army researcher: Sleep, readiness go hand in hand. Department of Defense: Army News Service.
Aziz, M., Ali, S. S., Das, S., Younus, A., Malik, R., Latif, M. A., . . . Nasir, K. (2017). Association of subjective and objective sleep duration as well as sleep quality with non-invasive markers of sub-clinical cardiovascular disease (CVD): A systematic review. Journal of Atherosclerosis and Thrombosis, 24(3), 208-226. doi: 10.5551/jat.36194