Sleep for Mental Health

The Importance of Making Sleep a Priority

Published on November 30, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

As a first responder, you may be used to hearing that you need to get some sleep. Though this might seem like an overused phrase, the sentiment is not. Being on a job that requires extensive mental and physical energy has the potential to wear you out by the end of the day. Therefore, it will require that you get just as much rest to be adequately prepared for the next day that follows. 

Making sleep a priority means you are making your health a priority. You are making your job a priority. You are making your family a priority. Not getting enough sleep could adversely affect any of these aspects of your life.

Sleep supports every major physiological system in the body. Sleep affects our immune, cardiovascular, and metabolic functions. It also influences our cognitive and neural processes such as memory, emotional regulation, decision making, learning, motor control, and more.

Some adverse effects of sleep deprivation can lead to issues down the road that may not seem immediately obvious. When we initially think of the unfavorable results lack of sleep will bring, we may think first of physical tiredness and irritability. While these are true, the long term effects of regularly not getting enough sleep can be much more severe. It can lead to memory impairment, being prone to injury, depression, and poor decision-making that may put you and others at risk.

The Consequences of Lack of Sleep

– Memory impairment: The three primary memory functions that occur in the brain include the encoding, consolidation, and retrieval processes. Sleep affects memory mainly during the consolidation process, where neural connections that form our memories are strengthened and become stable. This unifying activity happens during sleep because it is a state in which the external information we are receiving is significantly reduced. This quiet time is optimal for the brain to consolidate our memories and newly acquired knowledge because no new information is coming in.

Sleep deprivation can hinder this process and affect one’s memory processing. This is why getting adequate sleep is imperative for first responders who depend on having a sharp mind and mental clarity. Being able to remember new information and information you have learned on the job over the years is vital to doing your job well. 

– Injury: While sleep gives the brain a chance to catch up on rest and strengthen our memory, it also provides the body with an opportunity to regenerate and repair itself from the day. Our muscles, tendons, joints, ligaments, and bones need this valuable time to recover. Getting enough sleep helps prevent overuse injuries, which can occur when you have a physically taxing job.  

Getting adequate sleep will help with your cognitive decisions and reaction time, which is integral to first responders who sometimes have to act quickly on the job. If one’s reaction time and decision-making process are slower, it may cause one to end up accidentally injuring themselves. Getting about eight hours of sleep is just as important as proper nutrition, exercise, and hydration in keeping your body healthy and less prone to injury. 

– Depression: Constantly experiencing disrupted sleeping patterns can be particularly distressing for most individuals. It can end up negatively impacting one’s quality of life and mood. Chronic sleep deprivation has been attributed to depressive symptoms and burnout. In the first responder population, being on night shifts is a well-known cause of sleep deprivation as emergencies don’t suddenly stop at night. Night shift work can cause daytime sleepiness, as it can impact one’s circadian rhythm. This can also impair mental flexibility and sustained attention.

– Poor Decision Making: When you do not have enough sleep, your cognitive flexibility can suffer. The amount of sleep one gets can influence his or her decision-making. Lack of sleep does not necessarily lead to a decline in the morality of your decision-making and judgments. Instead, it may lead to latency in response time and leniency or permissiveness in response style. This may have implications for those in occupations such as first responders who often are required to experience extended sleep loss. When sleep-deprived, people can become prone to choosing courses of action that would differ from what they would have chosen had they been fully rested.   

There are plenty of tips and tricks that can help you get enough sleep. These include sticking to a specific sleeping schedule, avoiding electronic use 30 to 60 minutes before bed, and implementing a healthy routine just before bed that helps you fall asleep such as showering, listening to music, or reading. However, because everyone is different and has unique methods that work for them, you may want to experiment with a few tactics to find out what works best. Ultimately, it is paramount to make sleep a priority. 

Experts recommend getting seven to eight hours of sleep on a nightly basis. As a first responder, getting this healthy amount can be challenging. Working night shifts or being on-call can make it hard to relax and get a good night’s sleep. Sleep affects the body’s major physiological systems. By allowing your body the rest it needs, you will be able to function and perform at a higher level. This is why it is vital to make sleep a priority. If you think you may have a sleep disorder or are experiencing the harmful effects of sleep deprivation, such as memory impairment, depression, mental or physical injury, or poor decision-making, it is crucial to seek professional care. Here at First Responder Wellness, we understand the unique relationship first responders have with sleep. If you or a loved one needs help finding resources or is experiencing health or well-being issues related to sleep, call us now at (888) 743-0490.