It is commonly understood that not getting enough sleep has an impact on the way we feel and operate. Sleep deprivation has been linked to increased sensitivity and decreases in both physical and cognitive ability. But a new study commissioned by the U.S. Defense Department has provided an eye-opening view of what happens when lack of sleep is institutionalized, as well as a guide to the adjustments that need to be made going forward.
The study was conducted by Rand Corporation and was released this past week. It concluded that by actively working to improve both the quality and quantity of sleep that members of the armed forces get after they’ve been deployed, overall health problems could be diminished, as can symptoms or incidents of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The researchers also determined that the government’s lack of sleep-related policies is contributing to the overall problem of poor sleep attitudes among service men and women.
Wendy Troxel is a behavioral scientist at Rand who co-authored the study. She says, “The U.S. military has shifted from combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan toward helping service members and veterans re-integrate into non-combat roles. One issue that is often overlooked once military men and women return home is that of persistent sleep problems, because in many ways such problems are viewed as endemic to military culture.”
The stress that is experienced by those of us in the civilian world is well known to be a factor in insomnia and other sleep problems, so it should come as no surprise that members of the military would be experiencing these disturbances in relation to their service. Military personnel sleep disturbances contribute to a number of physical and emotional problems, and often last well past the time that they return from combat areas. This makes it much more difficult for them to transition back into society, and also has a negative impact on the status of those who are still serving in the combat zone.
The study is being called the first comprehensive review of the military’s attitudes and issues about sleep. According to Regina Shih, project co-leader and a senior social scientist at Rand, “Military policies on prevention of sleep problems are lacking, and medical policies focus on treating mental disorders that are often linked with sleep problems, instead of sleep itself. We know that sleep problems may precede the onset of mental disorders.”
On a positive note, the commissioning of the study marks a departure from the military’s traditional attitudes about sleep, and is an indication that the service is abandoning its historic discounting of its importance. Rather than viewing the need for sleep as a sign of weakness, the Defense Department is now recommending that awareness programs and education become part of their program in order to adjust attitudes throughout the institution, stressing that adequate sleep is an important part of being able to fulfill the mission.