Steps for Getting a Better Night’s Sleep
July 10, 2020 | 5-minute read
It’s not uncommon for Veterans to have trouble sleeping, whether it’s due to nightmares, a racing mind, or an old military routine that’s hard to break.
Sleep disturbances can result from a traumatic experience or a stressful event. Negative thoughts or worries can also make it hard for people to fall asleep or cause them to wake up easily during the night. Losing sleep can sap your energy and strength. And over the long term, if left unchecked, it can significantly affect health, performance, and safety.
Justin felt uneasy after returning from Iraq, where a close friend had died in an encounter with an improvised explosive device. He was angry. He startled easily. And he struggled to sleep. “My mind [was] constantly going — just feeling that tense, on-edge feeling,” he says.
Michael would wake up in a cold sweat, yelling. He found himself drinking more and more alcohol to quell the nightmares. “I knew that during the night those dreams would come to me,” he says. “And I was trying to do the best I could to get rid of them by drinking.”
Nicole found herself just going through the motions after experiencing intense combat in Iraq. “I didn’t sleep well,” she says. “I never did.”
After returning from deployment, Mike found himself sleeping on the front porch because of a recurring nightmare.
“I couldn’t even sleep in my wife’s bed,” he says. “When I slept in her bed, I would wake up every 30 minutes through nightmares that someone had come into the house. … They’d already hurt my kids and were now in my room, and had their hands on my wife, and it was too late for me to even do anything.
“So, I would have to get up every 30 minutes and go patrol the yard and house with the dogs.”
Mike had returned home, but he was still on a military sleep schedule with a military mindset. “Most guys just sleep all day like a baby, like you would sleep in country,” he says. “And then at night … you’re wide awake. I met a lot of guys and ladies who were like that. Once you get that cycle, you can’t break it — until you learn the steps to proper [sleep] hygiene.”
Getting better sleep can include these steps:
- Reach out for support. If your sleep quality is affected by anxiety or nightmares related to a traumatic event, VA has proven resources to help you get back to restful sleep.
- Learn more about the specific challenges you’re facing. Explore Make the Connection to learn more about addressing specific concerns that may be related to your troubles sleeping, such as nightmares, preparing for deployment, stress, depression, or PTSD.
- Enhance your environment. Try to make your bedroom a quiet, dark, cool place.
- Eliminate distractions. Create a relaxing bedtime routine. Try to avoid watching television, working on a computer, checking your phone, or listening to the radio in your bedroom. Make it a place just for sleeping.
- Establish a healthy routine. It’s important to maintain a consistent schedule of going to bed and waking up close to the same time every day. For most adults, seven to nine hours is an ideal amount of sleep. Regular exercise and time outside during the day can also help improve sleep.
- Reduce your screen time. Watching TV or using the computer or phone too close to bedtime can rev up your brain, and the noise and light exposure from the screens can disrupt your sleep cycle.
- Watch what you’re consuming, particularly at night. Try to avoid taking medications late in the day if they might disrupt your sleep. Similarly, try to avoid having caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol and eating large meals late at night.
Something else helped Edmond find sleep: Attending group therapy sessions at VA.
After returning home from Iraq, he estimates that he probably slept just two hours a day for three straight months. Once he started group therapy, he learned that many of his fellow Veterans had similar challenges.
“I could relate to a lot of it,” he says. “Can’t sleep: I understand that. Nightmares: I understand that. Being up all night, finding all kinds of things to do, having to always be involved or thinking of something, so that way your mind doesn’t wander: I could identify with a lot of what these guys were saying.”
The experience led Edmond to seek additional support at VA.
“The biggest improvement overall is now I go to sleep,” he says. “Before … I couldn’t just get up and go in the bed and go to sleep and expect to fall asleep. Now I can, which — it sounds small to somebody else — but to be able to know that you’re going to go to bed in your room and go to sleep is a big deal. It definitely straightens out a lot of things that kind of restart you for the next day.”