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Your Disaster Sleep Plan

Is sleeping part of your disaster plan? I’ll bet it’s not. Of course we can’t predict when we’ll be able to sleep in a life-or-death or otherwise high-stress situation. But we will all need to sleep eventually, so how will you ensure you’re able to get a minimum amount of rest?

Effects of Sleep Deprivation

We all know what happens if you don’t get enough sleep. At first, you get a little… stupid. You can’t do simple things as well as before. Your short-term memory starts to fail. You get clumsy and irritable. And you start making mistakes. Worst case, you make big mistakes. Long-term sleep deprivation is even worse, eventually resulting in mental breakdown and worse.

What do you think will happen after a day or two in a long-term emergency or disaster situation? Not only will you have a lot of additional problems to stress over, you will probably also have a compromised sleeping situation. Why? Maybe it’s because the rest of your family is not sleeping regularly, your home is damaged, you have unexpected guests, loud disturbances (sirens, gunfire, voices dogs barking) in your area, or any of the many other things that could make it difficult to sleep. And that’s not assuming you’re pulling a night watch shift because looters are busy in your neighborhood.

Sooner or later, you must sleep.
Sooner or later, you must sleep!

We can make one assumption safely, however. You must eventually sleep. If you don’t proactively decide when to sleep, you will fall asleep at the worst possible time, according to Murphy’s Law. This is one of the most troubling scenarios to the single person in an unsafe environment, so if that’s your scenario, you better find a place to hole up. But for most of us, we will have someone in the area we can trust to not plunder (or worse) while we sleep. And in that case, the goal will be at least a few (ideally several) hours of rejuvenating, uninterrupted unconsciousness.

Tips For Quality Sleep

  • Darkness will help. When I was in Army basic training, I was sleep-deprived like everyone else. One day on KP (Kitchen Patrol), things slowed down temporarily at the pots and pans station where I had been busy scrubbing bacon grease and other gunk off of large trays, and I took the opportunity to crawl under the sink, curl up and crash out for about an hour. It wasn’t as nice as a full night’s sleep, but it was better than nothing. And since I was so tired, I didn’t even notice that the bricks I lay on were hard, cold and damp, and that the pans getting cleaned in the stainless steel sink above me were clanging loudly. Darkness is all I needed at that point.
  • Another option that may help in your situation is a simple sleeping mask, especially if you’ve used one before and aren’t going to be distracted by something touching your eye area as you sleep. I remember many times after a 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM night shift, when I’d get home and put a large (and clean) sock over my eyes to help block out the light as I drifted away. A sleeping mask would have stayed on better.
  • A quiet environment will certainly help get you an extended chunk of sleep time. A surefire way to help with that: earplugs. I carry a pair in my backpack, so they’re around every time I travel. It’s not often I encounter unexpected, continuous noise, so that’s not my concern. But being able to shut out the world and sleep is a big deal. They’re small, inexpensive, and easy to find in bulk. Make sure you find a brand that fits comfortably, or you may wake up too early because they fell out, or because your ears are getting sore.
  • Along those lines, a cool environment will probably help too. Although it’s probably not likely you’ll have all of your common climate control options available in a real disaster, if you have the option to sleep in an environment that’s about 68 degrees F, you’ll probably sleep better than at 75 or 55 degrees.
  • Take some ibuprofen (Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). Not the the “PM” kind (like Tylenol PM), which contain antihistamines (which can cause undesirable side effects, especially if used repeatedly). All the little aches and pains you picked up during the day will be relieved and allow you to rest more comfortably. They might not seem significant as you doze off, but they may prevent you from really relaxing for an extended time.

If You Want to Sleep, Avoid These:

  • Alcohol may help you feel drowsy, but after you process the alcohol, you will probably go through an alert phase, and unless you’re really drunk (which is not a good idea, because drunkenness and subsequent hangover are also not helpful in an emergency situation), you’ll probably wake up long before you get as much rest as you need.
  • As stated above, antihistamines like Tylenol PM, while they may cause drowsiness, aren’t a great approach. Other sleeping medications (unless prescribed) probably should be considered only as a last resort.
  • Caffeine (coffee, tea, soda, “NoDoz”, etc.) consumed within a couple hours of when you need to sleep will decrease your sleep quality, if you’re able to get to sleep at all. The same applies for nicotine in cigarettes, depending on how you’re addicted (since it relaxes at some times and stimulates at others).

What Can You Do Now, and What Can You Stock Up On?

Ensuring you are able to get to sleep after a disaster, short-term emergency, or even a stressful day is critical for your mental and physical well-being. Consider these options as part of your planning.

  1. Be healthy and fit now. Healthy people who exercise regularly sleep better than those who don’t. Fitness is money in the bank.
  2. Get enough sleep now, so you’re not in a deficit when the major stress hits. Get it while the going is good!
  3. Buy some earplugs, a sleeping mask, and a bottle of ibuprofen or acetaminophen (which you should already have).
  4. Test your sleeping mask and test your earplugs at night. See if you need to try something different. Don’t wait until you’re stressed out to test your plan.
  5. If you’re concerned your bedroom may not be available when you need it, get a cot and try sleeping on it one night. If you don’t lose your bedroom, a guest who gets to use it will thank you profusely.

We all think about shelter, food, water, and other “basics” in a disaster preparedness context, but also make sure you give some thought to how you’ll maintain your sanity! You can thank me later. :-)

Stay safe!

Andrew, AB8L

{ 5 comments… add one }

  • Carol May 31, 2012, 2:32 pm

    I hadn’t thought of sleep being on my list of preparations but I do now. I think I’ll add some sleeping bag pads to make sleeping more comfortable. Thanks!

  • Allan Johnson June 14, 2012, 7:41 pm

    I did a lot of on call field service at night and the truck had a reclining front seat. The important thing was to use the available heat when I first arrived to get a quick 15 minute nap in the cold winter and then be refreshed for the task at hand if I could put it off. Then I would drive toward the next stop or home and do the same thing when I wasn’t under a time constraint. One time it was so cold that my mouse catcher cat slept on me to keep warm, her cold breath on my face did wake me up.

    • admin June 15, 2012, 5:10 pm

      Sounds like a great strategy, Allan. I often need a 10-minute catnap after a long drive. It changes everything!

  • Steve July 20, 2012, 1:43 pm

    I’m glad to see you address this topic as it should be one of the most obvious items for people to plan for yet it seems to be the most overlooked item in everyone’s emergency plans, just like having an adequate supply of fresh water is for many people. Everyone focuses on the easy and the obvious things like food, guns, ammo, shelter, communications and occasionally water, but rarely is sleep addressed.

    I learned the hard way about sleep. After 15 years in Army Combat Arms I discovered that sleep, or lack thereof, is my one major weakness. I am ok with the lack of creature comforts, the cold, heat, dirt, little food, no bathing, etc. but if I don’t get my fair share of sleep I very quickly deteriorate and become mission incapable. I recall after one 72 hour period of nonstop operations without sleep I started to hallucinate and I saw cartoon characters like Yosemite Sam pop out from behind trees while on patrol.

    The local gun store owner is a friend and when I stop by to see him I frequently overhear people talking about their preps for disaster or collapse and how they are going to be fine because they are armed and can defend themselves and their families. I always ask them “if everyone else in their family is also capable of handling weapons and standing guard” just as they claim that they are able to do and the answer is usually “no.” My next question then is always, “so what are you going to do when you have to sleep? What if Murphy’s Law kicks in and something unexpected should occur or what if looters attack your home while you are sleeping? What happens while you are in a deep sleep because you have been awake for a very long time and are unable to adequately respond in a timely manner?” I tell them that could be the difference between life and death for them and their family.” I ALWAYS get that “deer in the headlights look” from them as they realize their plans are unworkable and need to be quickly modified.

    I always tell people if you are planning to make it by yourself with just your immediate family (wife & children) you are planning to fail. You have to have a group large enough to pull multiple shifts of guard duty at night to ensure that everyone is getting adequate rest and is fully alert and mission capable at all times. Ideally if there are enough people available in the group then there also needs to be 24/7 observation/listening posts established outside the home/base camp to provide over watch and cover any likely avenues of approach by “the Bad Guys” in order to provide early warning for the group so that everyone can be awoken in time to adequately respond if necessary, and in a dire emergency provide additional fires if required. Finally, everyone in the family needs to know how to handle a firearm and how to respond to an emergency, not just the man of the house. Everyone needs to plan for and practice immediate action drills for multiple and varied types of emergencies and threats.

    If you don’t plan to sleep then you are planning to fail! Got tribe?

    • admin July 20, 2012, 10:23 pm

      “Got tribe?” –> Right on the money. A lot of people think the “loner” approach is a sound one. And in some circumstances, that may be the case. But everyone has to sleep sometime. Now is a good time to forge or improve relationships, and to get to know your neighbors! Heck, even if you don’t like them, what you learn won’t hurt.

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