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7 Ways to Help Veterans Who Can’t Sleep

Insomnia can be a long-term battle. Here’s how to defeat it.

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On active duty, troops sleep whenever and wherever they can. It’s part of the deal — and no wonder so many veterans develop sleep issues after they return home. Veterans are two or three times more likely than civilians to suffer from sleep apnea.

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“If left untreated, sleep disorders can lead to many serious medical consequences,” Susmita Chowdhuri, M.D., Sleep Section chief at the VA Medical Center in Detroit, tells AARP Veteran Report. “Chronically insufficient sleep has been associated with an increased risk of accidents, heart diseases and even death. Untreated insomnia disorder may contribute to depression, anxiety disorder and risk for suicide in veterans.”

Seek medical advice, but here are seven simple steps you can take at home to retrain your body to achieve a better night’s sleep.

1. Track your sleep

Start a sleep diary, a log to track what time you went to bed, how many times you woke up during the night, and whether you napped during the day. You can track your sleep on a smart watch or with paper and pen. Or the VA has a sleep diary you can download.

2. Set a sleep schedule

Select a regular wakeup time, determine the maximum time allowed in bed, and pick the earliest bedtime. The goal is to achieve 85 percent of sleep efficiency (total sleep time divided by total time in bed). Do not exceed the maximum time you set for being in bed, and don’t go to sleep before your designated bedtime — if you’re nodding off before that, get up and do some gentle stretches. And always wake up at the scheduled time, even if you’re still exhausted (no snooze button) or on the weekends. It may take your body up to a week to adjust, so be patient.

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3. Limit stimulus before bedtime

Your bed should be exclusively for sleep or sex. Keep your bedroom cool, quiet and dark. Remove magazines, books, pets, TVs and your phone. “Avoid exposure to bright lights close to bedtime as these will modify the body’s endogenous production of melatonin and delay sleep onset,” says Chowdhuri. Make sure you’re going to bed only when you’re sleepy — yawning, getting drowsy, or can’t keep your eyes open — rather than merely tired. If you don’t fall asleep within 20 minutes, get up and do a non-stimulating activity, like listening to music or meditating. Once you’re nodding off, return to bed.

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4. Ditch the bad pre-bedtime habits

Avoid caffeinated products, such as tea, coffee, soda and chocolate, in the late afternoon or evening. Don’t be tempted to take an afternoon nap. Don’t smoke, drink water, exercise or consume alcohol close to bedtime. Booze might make you sleepy initially, but it can exacerbate the severity of sleep apnea.

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5. Quiet your mind

Keep your eyes closed and take four to five deep breaths if you’re having a hard time falling asleep because of mind clutter. Shift your focus from your brain to your breathing. If you have a habit of overthinking at bedtime, try scheduling a daily time — two hours before bedtime or earlier — to address whatever is keeping your mind occupied. Create a “constructive worry worksheet” and jot down answers to questions like, What am I worried about? Is this something I can control? What can I do to address this concern?

6. Establish a positive thought cycle

You’re on the cusp of falling asleep when you’re jolted awake by a barking dog. Frustrated, your body tenses up in anger and your mind fills with unhelpful thoughts like, “I’ll never fall asleep now. Tomorrow is going to be awful.” The reaction ends up prolonging your awake time. Take a deep breath and recast negative thoughts to positive ones like “I’ll eventually fall asleep. Tomorrow will be manageable, and everything will be fine.”

7. Talk to a sleep specialist

If sleep remains fragmented or excessive daytime sleepiness persists despite following good sleep hygiene, you should ask your physician for a referral to a sleep specialist. A recommended initial sleep disorder treatment is through cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, which is offered by the VA. A continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which provides breathing assistance, can be prescribed.

Remember that you are not alone. Some 70 million Americans suffer from insomnia, including up to 54 percent of all veterans. It is a challenge, but you can overcome it.​

You can subscribe here to AARP Veteran Report, a free e-newsletter published every two weeks. If you have feedback or a story idea then please contact us here.

Rachel Ng is an award-winning writer and editor based in Hawaii. She’s a frequent contributor to National GeographicOutside magazine, and various AAA publications. She loves history, the board game Risk, and all things chicken.  

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