Written by Georgia State Patrol Capt. Andy Carrier, Licensed Master Social Worker

There are very few occupations that contribute to erratic sleep patterns, sleepless nights and overall lack of sleep more than law enforcement.   We deal with and see the worst of the worst.  To make matters worse, we do this when most are sleeping.  Our internal clocks have been rewired, or have become altogether, unwired.  Dealing with a critical incident can be traumatic and overwhelming.  Dealing with the same incident when we were fatigued before the incident can have lasting harmful effects. Ever work a bad wreck where a child was killed near the end of your midnight shift, then go home and try to sleep?

When it comes to your health and general well-being, getting enough sleep is crucial. This notion is often times overlooked. Although the amount of sleep needed varies from person to person, generally most people require between 7-9 hours of restful sleep a night. Others believe they can function on 5-6 hours a night.  While a very select few may be able to function on less sleep, most of us will experience a decline in work performance, memory, health and overall mood if the sleep we get is limited. A person can develop poor sleep habits (i.e. watching TV in bed or eating too much before bedtime), irregular sleep patterns (sleeping too late, taking long naps during the day) to compensate for lost sleep at night. Some folks also develop a fear of not sleeping and a pattern of worrying about the consequences of not sleeping,

Over 40 million Americans suffer from a variety of sleep disorders. Although there are many disorders and classifications, the two that are most prevalent are insomnia and sleep apnea. Both are medical conditions and both can be treated. Sleep apnea is characterized by episodes of shallow breathing or complete pauses of breathing while sleeping.  For a diagnosis of sleep apnea, the general guideline is more than five of the aforementioned episodes in one hour. Insomnia sufferers have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep (usually both).   Often times, a stressful event or depression can be the root cause of the erratic sleep pattern.  The problem with depression and sleepless nights is that one condition exacerbates the other. If someone is depressed or anxious, they may have racing thoughts and can’t fall asleep, or awaken after being asleep for an hour or two.  When it’s time to get up, this person is not rested.  The rest of the day may include fatigue contributing/worsening the condition (depression/anxiety).  It can be a vicious cycle if not addressed.  The root cause must be addressed for better sleep habits to emerge.

All of us will, at some point in our life, endure situational depression (adjustment disorder). Deaths of loved ones or close friends, retirement and divorce are all situational.  Although, different for all of us, most sleep patterns get back to normal as we learn to recognize and accept the “new normal.”  This reminds me of a quote by Hugh Prather…”Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes.”

Most of us have self-medicated in order to sleep. Whether it’s alcohol, Ambien, Lunesta, Nyquil, Benadryl, Alka-Seltzer Plus or Melatonin, the end goal is the same.  As much as this may surprise some, alcohol before bed is not a productive sleep aid.  Research has shown that for us to be at our “most restful” during sleep cycles we must enter the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep phase.  When we take in excessive amounts of alcohol, REM sleep does not occur.  There is no doubt that when you take in excessive amounts of alcohol, you will “pass out.’  That’s just it, though…you are passed out, not getting restful sleep.  It’s exactly why you feel groggy and tired during the day.  Many antihistamines (Nyquil – doxylamine succinate and Benadryl – diphenhydramine) will give you similar results and the same kind of “hung over” feeling as alcohol. There are many over the counter and prescription sleep aids that do not produce these results, although most do have some side effects.

In most cases, sleep is hindered by another underlying issue. Whether it’s physical injury, mood, stress, anxiety or depression, utilize practices to address these in ways that are not maladaptive. The first step would be to see your doctor. You’ve had “diet and exercise” pounded into your heads over and over, especially in our line of work. What does diet have to do with how I sleep? Who is at greater risk for acid reflux disease? Someone who eats a high fat, greasy diet or someone who eats fairly healthy most of the time? For the person who chooses the greasy, fatty diet, when does the reflux hit them hardest? When they lay down to go to sleep. So, diet, exercise and telling your doctor what’s going on in your world is the first step to better sleep.

Often times, the end results sneak up on us because the effects are cumulative and build slowly over time. For the time being, we merely roll with the “minute” problems and press on.  It’s only when things have totally fallen apart that we then decide to act.  The better option may have been to address problems when they were “minute” issues.  Handle what’s not such a “big deal” now. And if you aren’t sleeping, maybe it’s time to do something about it.  You owe it to yourself.