For most of my life, I was the kind of person that slept very well. I fell asleep easily and awoke rested. However, some years ago that changed. I was diagnosed with two types of insomnia. I struggle to fall asleep and, once I do, I get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep and then awaken several times the rest of the night. I underwent a sleep study and do not have sleep apnea. I take medication for insomnia now and, while I still have a bad night here and there, for the most part I sleep better.
I’m not sharing this to garner sympathy. I just figure that if faced with a survival situation, there are a host of things that could cause one to sleep poorly. I just happen to have some insight into what one can expect when you encounter a poor night’s sleep or a string of several poor nights’ sleep.
This article should not be viewed as any type of medical advice. This is purely from my own experiences or those others have shared with me. Some of the advice I give for either helping you stay awake or helping you get to sleep may not be medically safe for you. If there is any question, talk to your doctor!
While it is true that there are some standard side effects that most people encounter from a lack of sleep, the severity of those side effects and the rate at which they appear can vary. For instance, Bobby might normally get 9 hours of sleep. If he only gets five, he might be slightly irritable. Johnny, on the other hand, might normally get eight hours of sleep but gets cranky if he gets less than seven.
Impacts of Lacking Sleep
The severity of side effects due to one poor nights’ sleep can vary greatly. For instance, I don’t function well at all on less than five hours of sleep. If I can get six, I’ll be tired but I can get by. I have noticed that most of the effects from lacking sleep get worse if I sleep poorly for a few nights in a row. For example, at the time of this writing, I am on my fifth night of getting 5-6 hours. The first couple of days were bearable, but today I am thankful I don’t have to drive (and that I have a proof-reader!). The following are some of the effects I have seen.
Loss in cognitive ability; my job is “level two tech-support” for a very complex software product. One really poor night’s sleep or a few mediocre really take a toll. It takes me longer to troubleshoot issues, and I have to get assistance from co-workers more frequently. As I mentioned, I’m at five nights of poor sleep and I have forgotten words several times today. There have been decisions that I have had to put on hold as well as some serious conversations.
Irritability; this one for me is hit or miss. Sometimes I might be easier to irritate, or the level of irritability might be worse. Some days I’m not irritable at all and things that usually don’t make me laugh are suddenly funny.
Dry eyes; I’m not sure if my eyes get drier or if it just bothers me more. Either way, I have eye drops with me at all times.
Memory loss; this usually isn’t bad unless I have a couple bad nights in a row. I have learned to write notes and set Outlook reminders.
Loss of concentration; it takes less to derail my train of thought. This article, for example, is taking me twice as long to write as it normally would.
Lack of healing and increased pain; our bodies use sleep to heal us from the day’s wear and tear. When we don’t enter into a deep REM sleep, this doesn’t take place. I have a couple different causes of chronic pain. My pain is worse than normal on the days with less sleep.
Headaches; I get frequent headaches as it is, but they are either worse or harder to handle when I’ve slept poorly.
Loosing time; I don’t mean blacking out. It’s more like zoning out on steroids. I have found myself staring at a computer monitor until the power feature turns it off. I’ve “watched” television and realized half way through that, well, it’s halfway through and I don’t remember much of the first half.
Picture this; the grid has been down for five days and rioting and other civil unrest started in your area not long after. You and your spouse have taken shifts keeping watch at night. Even when you try sleep, it’s broken up by gunshots and the sounds of crying. How can you make sure that you’re sleeping and making the most of your sleep?
Pharmaceuticals can help, but if you have to be sharing a watch or making sure you have your wits about you as soon as you wake up, this might not be an option, as several drugs cause morning grogginess. I have tried several sleeping pills over the years. The hangover effect is much worse with some than it is with others. Melatonin has a far milder effect but is not an option for everyone, as it can cause some very vivid and no-so-pleasant dreams.
You would think that the lack of sleep would help you sleep better but that’s not always the case, especially in times of stress. Though you can be completely worn out and dragging, your mind won’t let you fall asleep. In times of stress, doing calming things before bed are a great idea. Doing something that can take your mind off the situation for a while is helpful as well.
If I can’t sleep, I could lay there all night trying. I have noticed that if I get up and play a game or surf the web for a while, I tend to fall asleep faster when I try laying down again.
There are several tea’s that boast aiding in relaxation and sleep.
Imagine the same scenario as above; you’re getting half the amount of sleep that you normally would. How can you make sure you stay awake when it’s your turn to be on watch? While I haven’t had to live through this scenario, I have had to hold down a job, drive in traffic and complete other tasks that I had to make sure I was awake for.
Stimulants immediately come to mind, but in the scenario I have given, they might not be a good idea during the night. You want to make sure you’re able to sleep when it’s your turn. The 4 hour energy drink may be alright, I suppose.
I wrote an article called Caffeine as a Prep Item where I explored the pluses and minuses of caffeine in a survival situation.
Pain can work very well in the short term. A slap to the face, plucking a nose hair or other minor things can help you fight off sleep for a time.
Cold water, as cold as you can stand it, can do wonders. In the given scenario, this idea might not work, but filling the sink with ice cubes and cold water, dunking the hands and face every few minutes, might do the trick.
Be cautious of pushing it too far. Your body will shut down eventually. When I was in the Navy, I went to aviation electrician school. There was a guy in my class who hit the clubs a couple night in a row. One day in class, he fell asleep at his desk. He was made to stand in the back of the class and hold a 2×4 over his head. He fell asleep standing up and dropped it on his head twice before class was out.
Catching up on Sleep
It is possible to catch up on sleep, but depending on the deficit, it could take a few days. One of the best ways to do this is by taking one of God’s greatest blessings…a nap!
The following is from WebMD
The length of your nap and the type of sleep you get help determine the brain-boosting benefits. The 20-minute power nap — sometimes called the stage 2 nap — is good for alertness and motor learning skills like typing and playing the piano.
What happens if you nap for more than 20 minutes? Research shows longer naps help boost memory and enhance creativity. Slow-wave sleep — napping for approximately 30 to 60 minutes — is good for decision-making skills, such as memorizing vocabulary or recalling directions. Getting rapid eye movement or REM sleep, usually 60 to 90 minutes of napping, plays a key role in making new connections in the brain and solving creative problems.
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