Maj. Richard Barton, Social Worker
U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine
When returning from deployment, a common contributor to feeling out of sorts is disrupted sleep. Living conditions in theater are not exactly four star; deployment sounds like air frames zipping overhead, opening and closing doors, weapons being slung and un-slung, and roommates shouting over video games—all with the possibility of incoming rounds—are a poor formula for solid siestas.
For Soldiers just returning from deployment, the living conditions during can negatively impact sleep. For some it is a lack of those sounds, for others it is sounds that are similar and appear to be out of place at home, and for those lucky enough to be within earshot of an impact area, well, enough said.
A trick to improving sleep is controlling the things you can and recognizing those that you cannot. Move the TV to a viewing place that is not the bedroom. This will help your body and mind begin to identify your bed as a place for sleep. If you are having problems staying asleep, go to another room and sit while watching TV or reading until you are ready to sleep. This sequence may have to be repeated several times, but eventually your body will get the message.
Set up a sleeping SOP that cues your body into recognizing when it is time to sleep. If needed, cover your eyes to keep light out. Use ear plugs or earphones with relaxing music. Relaxation exercises and martial arts meditation have been proven to be very effective in resetting sleep patterns.
Soldiers attend field training partly to become effective at functioning with low levels of sleep under adverse conditions. These training events cannot simulate adverse conditions such as the impact of near-death experiences, the witnessing of carnage, or the loss of a brother in arms. Over the last 15 years, sleep research has confirmed links between exposure to combat and sleep difficulties. In other words, poor sleep while deployed or upon return is normal.
Taking steps to learn about and then apply sleep hygiene procedures may be all that is needed to reset the process for restful sleep. If the body and mind are rested, their ability to deal with combat reactions improves markedly.
Help your body by restricting caffeine and nicotine intake an hour or two before sleeping. Don't use alcohol to manage sleep—it creates short-term, false gains with long-term negative impact. Studies have consistently shown that overuse of alcohol disrupts sleep. They have also demonstrated that a common denominator for those who suffer from severe PTSD is the use of alcohol, resulting in prolonged sleep difficulties.
If after 120 days of postdeployment, you see no significant improvements in sleep or no decrease in combat reactions, seek assistance from your primary-care provider, from another healthcare professional or a behavioral health specialist. Any of these resources should be able point you in the right direction.
Good resources for information include:
National Institute of Mental Health, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/ ,
National Center for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, http://www.ncptsd.va.gov/ncmain/index.jsp and Military One Source, www.militaryonesource.com .