Sleep lays the foundation for the health and well-being of Operators, Enablers, and their families, but many have trouble getting enough sleep to maintain optimal performance. The lifestyle of SOF families makes it even harder to prioritize sleep.
Operator and Enabler schedules are driven by high OPTEMPO, frequent deployments, and demanding training schedules. At home, spouses are playing single parent while their service member is deployed or TDY, juggling busy schedules, or taking care of children and/or aging parents.
Sleep loss impacts many domains of optimal functioning. Trying to drive a vehicle on an empty tank of fuel isn't a good idea, but many people have no problem attempting to operate themselves on little or no sleep. Without sleep, your cognitive function, ability to manage emotions and handle stress, relationships with others, and physical and nutritional conditioning are compromised.
Sleep loss seriously impacts functions of your brain, including decreased working memory, ability to concentrate, situational/battlefield awareness, focus, and response time. Sleep loss also reduces your ability to make good decisions and solve problems and increases the tendency to be distracted by emotional factors. And last, being depleted can reduce your flexibility, preventing you from seeing situations accurately, and increasing the likelihood of falling into thinking traps.
Stress is the most common reason Warfighters cite for why they experience sleep problems, including short sleep duration, nightmares, and insomnia. Sleep and stress are often connected in a vicious cycle: Stress causes sleep loss, which makes you more susceptible to feeling that you can't effectively deal with the stressors in your life, which then contributes to further sleep loss. Without adequate rest and recovery, it's more likely that all the emotional and psychological coping mechanisms you have to manage stress will operate at less than full potential.
Sleep loss hinders your ability to accurately interpret the emotions of others and identify what someone is feeling—specifically, the ability to interpret angry and happy facial expressions. It also lowers your ability to interact and communicate effectively with those around you. Therefore, sleep loss can decrease your ability to understand where others are coming from (that is, to empathize and comprehend what they're expressing) and your ability to maintain good relationships.
Sleep problems are risk factors in the development of physical illnesses and debilitating health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, and chronic pain. Sleep loss reduces physical performance primarily by reducing the motivation to engage in physical exercise, which can lead to compromised physical readiness, as well as increase susceptibility to injury.
Sleep impacts your eating habits. You're more likely to crave foods that are bad for you when you're depleted. Sleep deprivation is associated with higher risk of diabetes. Shorter sleep times are also associated with higher Body Mass Index (BMI) and imbalances in your body of hormones that regulate hunger and appetite. Weight gain can in turn give rise to sleep apnea and other issues that further negatively impact sleep.
An important final note on sleep and performance loss: You might think you're functioning just fine, but your subjective assessment of how you're doing might not match up to objective measures of performance, which are often far worse. Within the Operator and Enabler community (and even within society as a whole) many are conditioned to believe that sleep is a luxury when in fact, it is a basic building block of health and well-being. Awareness of how sleep loss impacts performance is critical for building healthy sleep habits.