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Sleep and Emergency Responders
by
Dr. Jim Guy
on
October 3, 2019
| Resilience | Stress & Burnout | First Responders |

In 2014, the Headington Institute broadened its focus to include domestic emergency first responders like police, fire, mental health, and emergency management departments.  By offering training workshops, counseling, and management consultations to thousands of these heroes, we’ve promoted their resilience and trauma recovery. This is the first post in a series on resilience in emergency first responder communities.


 Emergency responders have told me that failure to get a good night’s sleep is a common problem. Some have said that this “comes with the territory,” an inherent hazard of the profession. Lengthy deployments during crisis, rotating schedules, and upsetting emergencies can make it hard to sleep more than a few hours at a time. This may go on for weeks, months, or years. Responders often feel tired and foggy, even when working.

Research shows that we all need 7 to 9 hours of sleep each day to function well. The sweet spot seems to be around 8. Too little or too much on a regular basis can lead to serious health problems, like heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and high blood pressure. It can also change brain chemistry, causing depression, anxiety, or confused thinking. These health effects are cumulative and sometimes permanent, even with adequate sleep later. Think of a cell phone battery that degrades over time if not fully recharged regularly. Just like smoking and lack of exercise, this is serious stuff. 

Fortunately, it’s never too late to tackle sleep problems. The CDC and others recommend the following:

  • Be consistent. Go to bed at the same time each night and get up at the same time each morning. This includes the weekends, unless you have to make up for recent sleep deprivation that left you with a “deficit."
  • Make sure your bedroom is quiet, dark, relaxing, and at a comfortable temperature of 68-70 degrees.
  • Remove electronic devices from the bedroom, such as TVs, computers, and smart phones.
  • End all screen time one hour before bedtime.
  • Avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol before bedtime. No caffeine after Noon for those who are sensitive.
  • Get some exercise. Being physically active during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night.
  • Talk to a professional counselor about intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or mood swings that may compromise sleep.

I encourage emergency responders to give these simple techniques a chance to work – perhaps for 2 to 3 weeks. If there’s no improvement, it’s time to see a physician for a thorough check-up and an honest discussion about sleep hygiene. There is a lot of new research on its importance. Don’t ignore this issue. It won’t go away on its own. 

One more thing to remember: sleeping well requires discipline. There is no easy fix. Using alcohol, Benadryl, or other sleep aids is not a good long-term plan. To be at your best throughout your career, you need to maintain good habits that promote brain and body health.  Sleep is one of the most sensitive indicators of how well you're doing. Find a way to achieve the right balance so you regularly get a good night’s sleep. That’s one of the best ways to ensure your success and good health.

If you are a responder looking for more ideas on how to build your resilience, take a look at our website or email me at jguy@headington-institute.org. We’re proud members of your support team.

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