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I Live to Nap, and I Nap to Live

No discussion of police stress and dealing with shift work can be complete without looking at the universal need for sleep, and the consequences of both not getting enough sleep or having irratic sleep patterns. Police stress and shift work go together.

Sleep news: scientific news related to sleep. It was reported last week in a reputable magazine, Science, that researchers have demonstrated another way to combate the effects of jet lag. Previously it’s been known that bright light focused on the eyes could reset your biological clock after a flight over several time zones. Now unexpected results confirm that shining a light on the back of the knee, of all places, can have the same effect. No one knows why this is the case. Sleep research is a fascinating and important science. Some of the best medical minds are working on it. I just report what I learn, and unfortunately law enforcement agencies, with few exceptions, are still dismally behind the times in recognizing the limits of the human body and the untoward effects of sleep deprivation on performance.

I doubt I’d lose money betting that any particilar law enforcement officer suffered from sleep deprivation in the previous month. It goes with the job; but it shouldn’t, it doesn’t have to. But I doubt agency policy will change. After all, you aren’t a 747 pilot with four hundred passengers. Do your bosses really care if you are so bleary eyed at the end of a midnight shift that you’re mistaking mailboxes for people.

Consequenses of sleep deprivation

If you don’t get the sleep your body requires, you may be moody, grumpy and irritable. Your temper may flare and your sense of humor may be lost. You may not notice it but others probably will, unless they’re too sleep deprived themselves to care. Co-ordination and judgement can also be effected as studies of airline pilots and even NASA ground control personnel have demonstrated. In the long run, as with any kind of stress, your immune system can be compromised and you can get sick.

What can be done to prevent sleep deprivation? The simple answer of course is to get enough sleep. But what with your job and overtime and possible part-time work (and in Massachusetts the infamous “detail system” which pays officers around $26 an hour to direct traffic and by which they can double their income and die early of stress), it is virtually impossible for some officers to get enough sleep in one block of time. As you get older it is harder and harder to get by on less than the sleep your body needs (usually six to nine hours in a twenty-four hour period). So what is the answer. Most of you already know: creative napping!

How to get the most of naps

Any nap over three minutes is better than none. A ten minute nap can have amazing restorative power. An hour long nap is excellent as long as you don’t wake too abruptly during the wrong level of sleep. Several ten minute naps can be just as effective as a longer uninterupted nap. Once you get into a pattern your body learns to maximaize the restorative power of your nap cycles. But you have to be consistent. Don’t fool with Mother Nature.

Studies of individuals who soloed across the Atlantic on sailboats show that you can actually get by for days at a time just taking naps. You can also “store sleep” in advance of a period where you know you’ll be going without sleep by sleeping a little extra a few days prior to the time you’ll be unable to sleep.

More science

In order for most people to cycle through the levels of sleep needed to restore and revitalize their bodies they need three hours of uninterupted sleep. Some people teach their bodies to adjust to sleeping in two blocks of time in a twenty-four hour period and report this has worked well for them for years. Human beings are essentially biphasic sleeps, which means that we are designed to sleep in two periods during each twenty-four hour period. The ideal seems to be the “afternoon siesta” practiced equatorial countries. People have a natural low point during the afternoon (or midpoint during a midnight shift, about an hour after eating) where they become droswy. This is when your body wants to take a nap and when the miracle drug, caffeine, is consumed in great quantities along with the added carbo-charge of a donut or two.

You can tell if you are sleep deprived if you find yourself “making up for lost sleep” on your days off and sleeping ten or twelve hours at a stretch. Fortunately, you can recover from sleep deprivation if you sleep several extra hours for two or three days. In fact, if you stayed up for eight days and nights, you could fully recover within three days.

Creative Napping

Ideally, and this really comes from cop~shrink dreamland your agency should allow you to take a nap on your break and make a “nap room” available. The room should be dark and comfortable, with both a cot and a recliner to suit personal preferences. The temperature should be around 70 (people actually fall asleep best when the temperature is between 70 and 80, but sleep better when the temperature is lower). You should have a “white noise” machine to use if it helps. Obviously there will be times when you’ll need to wake up before your timer goes off, and you’ll soon train youself to respond to your radio. But otherwise, try to figure out exactly how to time the nap so you wake up refreshed, and not from too deep a sleep. If you wake from the wrong sleep level abruptly you may feel disoriented and it could take a minute you can’t spare to recover your senses.

The reality as we all know it is that particularly on midnights, some officers routinely nap. Even when they do this on a break, if they do it in their vehicle or where they are vulnerable, they put themselves at great risk. Not to mention what it looks like if someone spots them. There is no such thing as the perfect hiding place, if you could find it lovers looking for a place to park also can. Sure, you can learn to sleep with you eyes more or less open and pretend to be running radar (and even be a deterent to speeding, except the dagnab thing keeps going off just when you’re dozing off).

The only hope I can see is for progressive and aggressive law enforcement unions to negotiate provisions for naps into contracts. Otherwise officers will continue to develop creative ways to take surreptitious naps at the wrong times and in the wrong places. You can do everything possible to handly police stress, and unless you develop methods to get enough quality sleep, all your other healthy endeavors can be undone.

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