By Ashlee McKeon, O2X Sleep Specialist
Sleep & High Stress Jobs:
Sleep is a fundamental human need that is critical to the physical, cognitive, and emotional performance of tactical athletes. However, the demands of a career in service can make finding opportunities for optimal sleep a challenging task when the mission takes priority.
Even when a sleep opportunity is present, that does not necessarily mean tactical athletes will be able to fall asleep and stay asleep without difficulty. High stress careers in service can come with high anxiety around bedtime – making falling asleep a stressful experience rather than something relaxing.
The inadequate sleep duration and poor sleep quality that comes from trouble falling and staying asleep can lead to daytime fatigue both on the job and in personal lives, as well as short- and long-term negative effects on health and well-being.
The negative impact of inadequate sleep on the ability for a tactical athlete to complete the mission at the highest level is especially important. There can also be indirect negative effects on the sleep of bed partners and the overall household when a tactical athlete is not sleeping well.
Fortunately, there are several strategies tactical athletes can consider to create a more positive experience falling and staying asleep that is restful and restorative.
5 Strategies to Be 1% Better Falling or Staying Asleep…
1. Strengthen the cue association between sleeping and bed. Your brain loves the predictability that comes from consistent cue association. And you can strengthen or weaken existing associations between behaviors. Your bed should be reserved for two things: sleep and sex. Engaging in other activities in bed, such as watching TV, using technology, and playing with children or animals, trains the brain to expect both activity and sleeping to occur in the bed. By weakening the relationship between activity and bed, and simultaneously strengthening the relationship between sleep and bed we can establish a stronger cue association that getting into bed signals it’s time for sleep, and nothing more.
- “OK, makes sense, but how?” If you cannot fall asleep within 15 minutes after getting into bed and actively attempting to fall asleep, get out of bed and engage in a restful activity (e.g., drinking tea, meditating, or breathing exercises) until your eyes feel droopy again. Then, get back into bed and try to fall asleep again. Each time 5 minutes goes by and sleep isn’t achieved, get out of bed and repeat this process. It does take some time to determine if this strategy can work for you because you are attempting to modify (in this case weaken) an established behavioral pattern that is likely deeply engrained. But if you put in the work it has great potential to positively impact your ability to fall or stay asleep.
2. Establish a nightly pre-bedtime routine. High stress careers often mean the fast-paced operational tempo of the day leaves little time to wind down properly before bed. This realistic scenario often results in lying in bed as the first opportunity a tactical athletic may truly have to pause for a moment and begin processing the events of the day. Unfortunately, this means the act of lying bed can oftentimes then become a cue for anxiety and rumination over things that did not get done, what is happening tomorrow, long-term planning, etc. Thus, the creation of protected space for a pre-bedtime routine can serve both as a buffer between the fast-paced demands of the day and bedtime, as well as a tool to help the body wind down in preparation for bed.
- “Ok, let’s try it!” Determine how much time you can reasonably dedicate to a pre-bedtime routine. Forty-five minutes? Fifteen? Select a duration of time that is feasible, so you set yourself up for success (you can always extend the time down the road). Then, select a sequence of activities that you believe will promote relaxation and feel natural to you…you don’t want to make walking the dog part of your nighttime routine if you don’t have a dog…right (wink)? You then do these same activities in the same order, and starting at the same time, each night leading up to bedtime. For example: you might drink a cup of tea while reading 10 pages of a book, then prep your meals for the next day, set your clothes out, conduct self hygiene, start your oil diffuser, and then get into bed. The relaxation strategies found in the O2X Tactical Performance mobile app are also great options to help you start building a pre-bedtime routine. An effective component of a pre-bedtime routine to consider for those with anxiety over “all that needs to be done” is writing down notes or a to-do-list on a notepad beside the bed before going to sleep. This strategy may help reduce anxiety over potentially forgetting important information by storing the information somewhere physically instead of in your memory alone. That notepad will be there waiting for you in the morning. Everyone’s pre-bedtime routine will look a bit different, and that’s the point! The creation of a pre-bedtime routine can also be something the entire family does for themselves and is a great way to get your household thinking about their 1%.
3. Avoid engaging in alertness-promoting behaviors in the hours leading up to bed. Stimulants like caffeine and nicotine, alcohol consumption, and even exercise and food can all impair sleep duration and sleep quality if engaged in too closely to bedtime. Although some of these activities, such as alcohol consumption, are sometimes self-reported to help individuals with trouble sleeping fall asleep faster, they can greatly impair the quality of our sleep, and contribute to fatigue the next day.
- “But how do I know what and when to avoid?” As general rules of thumb avoid:
- Nicotine and caffeine within 6 hours of bed, at minimum
- Alcohol within 4 hours of bed, at minimum
- Technology screen time at least 60 mins before bed
- Exercise within 90 mins before bed, when possible
- Food and within 90 mins of bed, when possible
- Napping too close to bedtime (strive to place naps towards the middle of the day)
- Bright light 2-3 hours before bed (to allow melatonin to rise naturally)
4. Harness the power of light. Light, especially bright natural sunlight or artificial blue light, are the strongest influences of our sleep/wake cycle. Broadly, we want light when we need to be awake and perform our best, and we don’t want light when we are winding down for the day or going to sleep. Therefore, light exposure after dusk when we are oftentimes in our homes around artificial light has the potential to impede the body’s biological process of preparing for bed and winding down. This exposure during the evening hours signals to the brain that we want to be alert when we’d actually like to feel more relaxed and sleepy. Trouble falling asleep is often linked to the body and brain’s inability to properly prepare for sleep.
- “Yikes, how can I better manage my light exposure then?” Consider trying the following strategies:
- Use the nighttime light filtering feature on your phones and tablets to shift from blue, more alerting, light to less alerting hues (i.e., oranges and reds) after dusk each evening to reduce bright light exposure from your devices.
- Switch to color changing lightbulbs in the highest traffic areas of the home where you spend the most time in the evenings. Set the lightbulbs to switch from blue light to red/orange hued light around sunset as another way to limit exposure to bright light in the evening hours leading up to bed.
- Do not discount the negative impact brief exposure to bright light can have on your ability to fall asleep initially or return to sleep after a nighttime awakening. Change nightlight bulbs in hallways, bathrooms, and/or the bedrooms of young children you may need to care for during the night to those with red/orange hues. This will allow you to safely navigate those areas if needed during the night, but without exposing yourself to unnecessary bright light that can negatively impact your sleep duration and quality once you return to sleep.
5. Create a sleeping environment that is a sanctuary for optimal sleep. Your bedroom should be a place you want to spend time in and feel comfortable and safe in. It should be a facilitator of quality sleep and not a barrier.
- “I want a bedroom sanctuary! How do I sign up?” Consider how the following are serving as facilitators or barriers of quality sleep in your own bedroom:
- Darkness is key: Small sources of light from electronics and streams of light breaking in through curtains are still perceived by our brain even during sleep and can disrupt our circadian rhythm. Low-cost black out curtains, eye masks, covering small light indicators with tape, and the repositioning of electronics can make a true difference in your ability to get quality sleep.
- Don’t forget the impact of temperature and noise: An optimal bedroom for sleep is also one that is cool and free of noise. Aim for a temperature of around 65 degrees to promote sleep. Attempt to keep noise to a minimum and consider the use of a white noise machine when eliminating environmental noise is challenging. Bed partners, both human and those covered in fur, can also contribute to elevated body temperature and noise challenges in the bedroom.
- What you lie on, and with, matters!: Your sheets, pillows, and mattress all impact your ability to stay cool, comfortable, and physically supported as you fall asleep and maintain sleep throughout the night. Popular memory foam based products, although seemingly comfortable at first, can be havens for increased body temperature, as can the non-breathable fabrics of sheets. The integrity of all sleeping surfaces also matters. These surfaces should never cause pain or discomfort. As a general rule of thumb: replace pillows every 2-3 years and mattresses every 5-6 years.
Final Take Aways:
Remember that the most successful sleep promoting strategies are the ones that map best onto the demands of our lives, and not the other way around. Take the system you are given, the positives and the aspects we wish were improved, and find strategies to work within it. Trying to force sleep strategies onto our “ideal” self or into the life we wish we had will only create barriers to success. For example, if you tend to have low success implementing changes that require you to keep up with something daily, consider a sleep strategy that has a “set it and forget it” approach, such as installing one-time programming color changing bulbs in your home.
Further, when striving to improve your sleep, be conscious to not fall into the “New Year’s Resolution” trap, where goal setting becomes an “all or nothing” attempt to address all sleep challenges at the same time. Incremental change, where the focus is on becoming slightly better every day, is scientifically backed as the most effective method for long-term behavioral change that sticks. Start with one strategy you feel confident in and focus on implementing that strategy successfully. After that strategy has become part of your new sleep pattern first acknowledge and be proud of that success. Change takes effort and change is rewarding, but change is also hard. Then, use that success as motivation to tackle the next sleep strategy, and the next. Small, manageable, changes that lead to long term success allows us to harness the power of sleep as a (completely free!) tool to optimize health, perform our best, and support overall well-being in our service careers, in our personal lives, and in our futures after serving.