To Sleep, Perchance to Dream – Part 1, by J.M.

Ahh, waking up fresh and well-rested in the morning to the soft musical chime of your alarm clock, with the beautiful rays of morning sunshine nudging you to start your day after a restful night’s sleep. Okay, so I may be leaning a bit into the fantasy world, but the reality is that sleeping (and waking up, hopefully) are things that everyone reading this has in common. The other thing that pretty much everyone shares is that we all have problems sleeping occasionally – tossing and turning, getting up at oh-dark-thirty and feeling like we’re walking around in a coma the next day. Studies have shown that up to 25% of Americans don’t get a good night’s sleep at least half the time, 90% have bad sleep nights 2-3 times a month, and 20% of adults in the US suffer from sleep apnea. And this is during ‘normal’ times – the stresses you’ll be experiencing in a post-disaster world will probably turn everyone into raging insomniacs until things settle down.

For something that we spend nearly 1/3 of our lives doing and that has such a big impact on our health and ability to function effectively, sleep is a topic that doesn’t seem to garner a lot of attention in the preparedness community. While it may be mentioned in passing when discussing overall preparedness or a sleeping bag might be included as part of a get-home bag (GHB), incorporating formal plans and kit focused on sleep into your preps can make a huge difference in your comfort, health and effectiveness in a survival situation.

The Science

You don’t need a degree in sleep science to effectively plan your sleep-related preps, but it helps to have a basic understanding of what happens when you sleep. To start, there are four phases of sleep:

  • Non-Rapid Eye Movement (NREM) Phase I – This is a transition period between being awake and asleep, and typically lasts around 5-10 minutes. And no, the hours you spend tossing and turning don’t count here. During this phase your brain starts to slow down, your breathing, heartbeat and eye movements slow down and your body starts to relax.
  • NREM Phase II – Once you’re actually asleep, your body temperature drops, you become less aware of your surroundings, your eye movements stop and your breathing and heartbeat stabilize. During this phase rapid spikes in brain activity occur, which is thought to be when things like memory consolidation and ‘garbage collection’ from what you’ve experienced since the last time you slept occur in your brain.
  • NREM Phase III – This is the deep sleep phase when you’re pretty much unaware of anything happening around you. Your brain does some additional memory consolidation and your brain and body go into repair mode to fix any physical problems.
  • Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Phase – This is the dream phase when your brain kicks into overdrive and your body is essentially immobilized. This is thought to be the phase where memories, experiences, emotions, etc. are finalized and ‘written’ to permanent memory in your brain.

During deep sleep (NREM Phase II and REM), your cells repair and rebuild, and hormones are secreted to promote bone and muscle growth. Your body also uses deep sleep to strengthen your immunity so you can fight off illness and infection. Note that the phases don’t necessarily occur sequentially – after NREM Phase III you usually repeat Phase II before moving into the REM phase, and you may go back into Phase II after a period of REM sleep. These cycles can repeat four or five times during sleep.

Every phase of sleep is critical to ensuring your brain and body are operating at peak performance, which is why having a bad night’s sleep usually leaves you feeling like a zombie. Understanding what can interrupt these cycles is critical to planning your post-disaster sleeping arrangements. Some of the things that can prevent you from sleeping or interrupt sleep cycles include:

  • Age – As you get older you tend to sleep ‘lighter’ and your sleep cycles are more easily interrupted. You also tend to need less sleep.
  • Urination – Nocturnal polyuria as you get older, drinking before bed time, a smaller bladder and some medications can cause you to wake up to urinate.
  • Sleep disorders – Obstructive sleep apnea (breathing that stops and starts during sleep) and restless leg syndrome (a strong sensation of needing to move the legs).
  • Pain – Pain can prevent you from getting to sleep or interrupt your sleep cycle.
  • Mental health – Worry, stress, fear, and other mental factors that will inevitably be present post-disaster can prevent sleep.
  • Drugs – Stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine can prevent sleep.
  • Environment – Factors in the physical environment can have a big impact. These include:
    • Sleep platform
    • Temperature
    • Sounds
    • Light

So what’s the impact if you don’t get a good night’s sleep? Lack of sleep can cause a wide range of problems, including:

  • Inability to focus on a task or problems
  • Reduce ability to learn
  • Reduced creativity
  • Reduced decision-making ability
  • Increased mood volatility
  • Reduced memory recall
  • Reduced response time
  • Increased risk of physical issues such as pain, high blood pressure, inflammation, etc.

Any of these can have potentially serious or even fatal consequences in a post-disaster situation, so ensuring you get enough quality sleep can be critical to survival.

Home Sweet Home

The majority of us will spend most of our time in our home or bug-out locations, so it makes sense to initially focus on that environment when planning for sleep. The first thing that should be considered is where everyone will be sleeping. If you live in any kind of house or dwelling you most likely have one or more separate bedrooms for everyone to sleep in. While this works when you have heat, air conditioning, and electricity in all of the rooms, bathrooms close to each room, and security as a secondary consideration, such an approach may not function effectively in a grid-down scenario. There are several potential issues with a distributed sleeping approach in such a scenario:

  • It will be inefficient and difficult to heat multiple rooms in colder weather.
  • Moving around at night (such as going to the bathroom) will require each individual to have their own lighting source.
  • It will be more difficult to locate everyone in an emergency like a fire or an intruder.
  • Someone making noise in another part of the house might easily be mistaken for an intruder due to a heightened state of security awareness.

You’ll most likely be better off consolidating all of your sleeping arrangements into one or two closely-placed rooms, which will likely be close to where you have your off-grid heating source (wood stove, fireplace, etc.). You should also provide some low-level lighting (e.g. a solar-chargeable lantern, for example) for areas such as the toilet room in case someone has to get up to use the bathroom at night.

Note that there are a couple of downsides to having everyone sleeping in one room – there will be minimal privacy, and one person snoring, sleep-talking or getting up frequently can impact everyone’s sleep. In warmer weather you can consider letting people sleep in multiple rooms, but from a security perspective your better off not spreading everyone out too much. If some degree of privacy is required you can hang blankets or sheets up to divide up the sleeping space but still provide decent heating.

Sleep Platform

If you do decide to consolidate everyone into one or two rooms close together, you’ll need to consider what they’ll be sleeping on. While some folks may take the approach of ‘tough it out – sleep on the floor’, providing for more comfortable sleeping arrangements can result in better overall health and functioning for everyone, which in turn increases your chances of survival. Note that while your first inclination might be to just move your existing beds into the common sleeping area, a single Queen and a couple of full-size beds can fill a space up pretty quickly and require a lot of effort to disassemble, move and re-assemble. The amount of space that will need to be heated with this setup will also be larger, requiring more heat production. If the floor space in the common room allows for it you might be better off just moving your existing mattresses into the room. If you already have something like a convertible sleeper sofa or futon available that would also be a good option as long as they can fit with enough room for everyone to move around.

Another option would be those inflatable mattresses that everyone seems to have for guests or even camping air mattresses, but I strongly recommend against relying on anything inflatable for a long-term sleeping platform. You’re almost guaranteed to end up with hard-to-find leaks in one or more of them, and trying to find and patch them can be a major nightmare. A better option would be folding cots, which can be easily stored and are reasonably comfortable. They’re available as singles, doubles, and even bunks, and there are options available with built-in mattresses. You can also buy add-on mattresses to increase the comfort level if you already have cots. You can find decent folding cots starting at around $30, and they go up to hundreds of dollars for things like ultralight ones. Another nice thing about using cots is that you can fold them up when you’re not sleeping to make the common space more usable. They can also easily be moved into another room if someone needs to sleep during the day due to a night security shift or fire watch, or if one person is making a lot of noise at night.

(To be continued tomorrow, in Part 2.)