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The Science of Rest: Managing Your Sleep as a Firefighter

Getting a restful nights sleep can be a challenging task for most of us, but firefighters and those who deal with split shift schedules find they only catch forty winks. Learn some valuable tricks from those experiencing it on a daily basis to achieve your needed deep sleep.


A firefighter sleeping on pillow

Sleep and deep rest are vital for our bodies to function. The vast majority of the population have the luxury of sleeping in their own comfy beds, when it’s dark, on a regular schedule, every night. However, firefighters aren’t always so lucky.


Splitting their sleep between home and the fire station, firefighters know they have to be ready for action at any time when on shift. A poor night’s sleep disrupts the following day, reduces our concentration, impacts our diet and mental health, and can have long-term impacts.


Poor sleep doesn’t just affect the way we work physically, but it also impacts the way we work mentally. It’s no wonder that poor sleep, coupled with high-stress situations and exposure to trauma means firefighters are highly prone to mental health issues.


Separate your sleeping habits


If your bed at the fire station is a close replica of your home sleeping arrangements, it can throw your body off as the environment around the bed is constantly changing, but the bed can feel very similar. One tip we’ve learned is to separate our sleeping habits between locations  - so making your station-bed very different from your home-bed.


Action: The next time you’re in the station try sleeping in a sleeping bag with your socks on (if you don’t usually).


This method creates a new environment for sleep, far different from that at home so your body isn’t expecting everything to be normal as usual. Developing this secondary sleeping environment will allow your body to switch between the two locations much more easily.


Meditation


Meditation is a fantastic tool for easing your mind especially if under high amounts of stress. The next time you’re tossing and turning and beating yourself up for not being able to switch off, take 10 minutes to lay still and practice meditating. If you’re in your bunk room alone it will be easy to embrace the silence but you may need some headphones to listen to calming music. Try these steps:

  • Take a deep breath in through your nose for the count of 4 seconds

  • Hold that breath for 2 seconds

  • Slowly exhale through your mouth for 2 seconds

Try and focus on breathing from your diaphragm rather than shallow chest breaths. Try it out and see how you get on!

If you prefer to be guided at first, try this link to a wonderful guided meditation.


Write a worry list or gratitude list


A worry list is exactly what it sounds like - a deep analysis of everything you’re worried about in that moment. Take 10 minutes to write down everything which is worrying you until you have nothing left to write, the act of this can help to almost ‘transfer’ these thoughts out of the mind and leave them on the paper. Psychologists recommend this to allow for a more peaceful and deep sleep.


A gratitude list is the opposite - making a list of everything you’re grateful to help ease a stressed or anxious mind which can impact your sleep. Again take 10 minutes to write down everything you’re thankful for until you can’t think of any more.


Clearly, these suggestions are situational and will differ from person to person - what works for you, works for you!


Daytime napping will become your friend


Depending on how busy your station is, it’s going to be rare you get a full night of restful sleep when on shift. Taking a nap during the daytime is going to be a great solution for this. Arm yourself with an eye mask to block out daylight and set your phone alarm for a minimum of 60 minutes (if you can), it usually takes around 10-15 minutes to fall asleep and you’ll be left with at least 45 minutes of rest before you may need to be up again. If you can take more than one, even better.


Forty winks to deep sleep


To wrap up, prioritizing quality sleep is imperative for firefighters who navigate the challenging demands of split-shift sleeping arrangements. The impact of poor sleep extends beyond mere physical fatigue, affecting concentration, diet, and long-term mental health.


Recognizing the unique challenges faced by firefighters, it becomes essential to actively manage sleep environments. By consciously differentiating sleeping habits between the fire station and home, firefighters can create distinct mental cues for rest.


Additionally, integrating meditation into the bedtime routine offers a valuable tool for stress relief, promoting a calm and focused mind. Incorporating practices like writing worry or gratitude lists can further aid in decluttering the mind and fostering a sense of peace.


Embracing daytime napping as a friend rather than a luxury becomes crucial for combating fatigue, ensuring firefighters remain sharp and ready for action even in the face of unpredictable sleep schedules. As guardians of public safety, taking proactive steps to safeguard their own well-being empowers firefighters to face challenges with resilience and effectiveness.

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