Blue Line


April 10, 2013  By Stephanie Conn

858 words – MR

Tired of being tired

by Stephanie Conn

It’s no secret that the demands of police work make getting good sleep difficult. Poor sleep — which could be due to shiftwork, organizational stress, personal life stressors or a traumatic event or accumulation of events — has been associated with poor job performance, accidents, increased alcohol use and health problems (1). Let’s take a look at each factor and how it can be countered.

{Shift work}

Shift-work disorder (SWD), a mismatch between internal sleep-wake cycle and the timing demands of shiftwork, affects many police officers. Unfortunately, its impact extends beyond the shiftwork years, even into retirement, because the body has never readjusted.

Research indicates that those who work straight days tend to get more sleep than those who work evenings or overnight shifts. This is, in part, due to the impact of lightness-darkness on the sleep-wake cycle. Those who work night shift are more prone to sleepiness due to the absence of light during their waking hours and the presence of light while trying to sleep.

There are several things you can do to help. If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, taking melatonin three hours before going to bed may help – it promotes sleepiness. Making your sleep area as dark as possible and getting as much light as possible during your waking hours is also suggested. If you’re sleepy before going to work, a 20-minute nap can help.

{Organizational stressors}

One aspect of organizational stress is feeling you have no control over your personal time. A low sense of control combined with heightened levels of stress chips away at officers’ resilience and, consequently, their health. You probably can’t pick your work schedule but you can choose how you spend the hours outside work. Fill your free time with things that refill your tank – exercise, recreation, hobbies, rest, etc.

There are many other organizational stressors that would require a book (or several) to cover. Suffice it to say that you have to determine what is within your control and what’s not. If you can’t change something, let it go. If it doesn’t help the situation to think about it and lose sleep over it, there’s no point in persisting to do so.

If thinking about it was going to be helpful, something would have changed by now, right?

{Personal life stressors }

Having a family may make getting sleep even more difficult. Kids may not understand why mom or dad needs to sleep during the day. I remember waking up to find that my nephew had surrounded my bed with army toys so we could do battle the moment I awoke after my overnight shift.

It may also be difficult for partners, friends and adult in your life. You may feel internal or external pressure to forgo sleep so as to not miss spending time with others who have a normal schedule. Resist this urge! You wouldn’t wake your family up at 3 a.m. to watch a movie, would you?

Talk to your family and friends about your need for sleep and how it affects your health and safety, then look for ways to focus on them during your waking hours or days off. It might seem that you’re occasionally missing out on events but that’s far better than completely missing out later when you are suffering from physical health problems related to sleep deprivation or the aftermath of an accident due to fatigue.

Various personal life stressors such as financial strain, health concerns or relationship difficulties may also compromise your ability to get good sleep. Thoughts of these difficulties may prevent you from being able to fall or stay asleep.

Keep a notebook by your bed to write down your concerns. If you find thoughts interfering with your ability to drift off, write them down and schedule a time to “worry” about them. I know it sounds strange but it works! Each time the thought comes back, remind yourself that you can’t do anything about it at the moment and have set aside a time to deal with it later.

{Traumatic event(s)}

Sometimes the intrusive thought is a memory of a traumatic event you have experienced or witnessed. This occurs because the memory hasn’t been stored in your brain properly due to the overstimulation of your amygdala. It will continue to intrude until you take measures to process the event.

Essentially, the brain has a natural drive to heal so it keeps reminding you of the event until it “learns” it has actually ended (see Shapiro’s book for a more comprehensive description). A counsellor trained in trauma, particularly EMDR, can assist you with this process and offer additional suggestions for better sleep.

Getting good sleep shouldn’t be a nightmare. Instead, diligent attention to healthy habits can result in sweet dreams.

(1) Neylan, T. C., Metzler, T. J., Best, S. R., Weiss, D. S., Fagan, J. A., Liberman, A., & Marmar, C. R. (2002). Critical incident exposure and sleep quality in police officers. 64, 345–352.

(2) Shapiro, F. (2012). Rodale Books.

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