The #1 Most Neglected Survival Prep: Fatigue Management 

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by Grizzlyette Adams

Dealing with a disaster is often exhausting and staying alert can be especially challenging during a prolonged crisis. However, strategies to stay in top form during and after calamities are not something that most people think to include in their emergency preps.

Sleep deprivation, stress, and other issues that are commonly associated with disasters often lead to survivor’s burnout.  If not properly managed, this fatigue can compound existing problems when the crisis lingers for days, weeks, months, or longer.

This article will address one of the most critical aspects of survivor’s burnout: sleep deprivation.

At one time or another, most of us have functioned quite well without sleep and we didn’t burn the house down, drop the baby, or get into a wreck. We usually managed to do whatever we had to do, regardless of how tired we were. But how well will we perform during an intensely stressful or prolonged disaster event?  We may survive the initial crisis then fail miserably because of mistakes made when we are fatigued.

Sleep deprivation can be deadly

Statistics that link serious mistakes to sleep deprivation are astounding. A look at a few surprising details about them will show why it is a good idea to be well prepared to fight this potentially deadly impairment that can strike when we least expect it to happen

The surprising thing is, many accidents usually occur when we think we are in total control.

But it is no surprise that tired workers are 70% more likely to be involved in accidents than well-rested workers. Fatigue contributes to a large number of accidents on the road as well.

It is particularly noteworthy to consider that some of the world’s most horrific disasters in history were caused by highly skilled people who excelled in their professions, but were working while fatigued. Here are just a few of many disasters that have been linked to fatigue and sleep deprivation:

  • The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill on March 24, 1989, was one of the worst man-made environmental disasters in history. As a result of sleep deprivation, hundreds of miles of coastal ecosystems were affected when 42 million liters (11 million gallons) of oil spilled into the water off the Alaskan coast. The person at the helm of the supertanker Valdez had only slept six hours in two days before colliding with a familiar reef that was well known by every ship’s operator on that route.
  • An investigation of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor disaster on March 28, 1979, concluded that sleep deprivation was a factor. As a result of the accident, many people in the area fell ill and a significant number of animals and plants died.
  • The Challenger space shuttle explosion on January 28, 1986, was linked to fatigue and sleep loss which contributed to the fatal launch that killed everyone on board.
  • One of the most horrific nuclear disasters in history occurred in the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Soviet Union on April 26, 1986. It is believed to be caused by a series of mistakes made by fatigued workers.

There are many more accounts of disasters caused directly or indirectly by fatigued, but otherwise highly skilled people.

If we don’t take rest breaks, our minds may take total leave of absence without our consent.

Even the best of us can lose our usual ability to react quickly to signs of danger when we are tired and weary. But why do so many obviously qualified people make serious mistakes? Could we also fail when under pressure or deprived of sleep?

New Scientist Magazine points out that “Our performance crumbles when we are tired. This is due, so we think, to episodes of involuntary “microsleep” lasting several seconds. Succumb to microsleep at the wrong time and you won’t respond fast enough when something goes wrong.”

Researchers have found that microsleep happens when parts of the brain go to sleep while other parts are still active and awake. Now, that is scary stuff.

Lost sleep? You might as well be drunk or brain-damaged.

Losing sleep has much of the same effects on our body as being drunk. According to the Sleep Foundation, being awake for 18 hours affects your body as if you have a blood-alcohol level of .05, and 24 hours of lost sleep is the same as being too drunk to drive. (Having a blood alcohol level of .08 means you are legally drunk enough to get a DUI/DWI ticket.)

Sara C. Mednick, Ph.D explains why sleep deprivation has such devastating effects on the brain. She states in her book, Take a Nap! Change your Life: The Scientific Plan to Make You Smarter, Healthier, and More Productive, “No single organ is affected by lack of sleep more than the brain. In order to function, it must metabolize the glucose that it receives via the circulation of blood. Neither process is possible without sleep.”

How prepared are you to deal with severe exhaustion during and after disasters?

Most of us reach for caffeine and other energy boosters to push through fatigue. The problem with that is they may work up to a point, but might not be enough to counteract the dangerous effects of prolonged stress and sleep loss.

A committee of scientists published a report that showed how “the danger of an error due to sudden overwhelming sleepiness increases progressively with continued sleep loss or “sleep debt.” Most individuals cope with significant sleep debt by physical activity and dietary stimulants. Coping mechanisms can temporarily make an individual completely unaware of dangerous accumulated sleep loss.”

So, when we think we feel alert and ready to roll after a few cups of coffee, we may not be on top of our game as much as we think we are.

Performance and critical thinking skills naturally degrade as our sleep debt grows. If we are in a situation where we need to be on high alert, being loopy from lack of sleep could cause us to become a liability to ourselves and those around us.

It’s easy to lose sleep during and after disasters, especially if our lives are upside down. Loss, grief, fear, stress, physical injuries, and existing dangers all take a toll on our peace of mind and can rob us of much-needed rest. Here are some strategies to help minimize the chances of making serious mistakes that often go along with sleep debt.

Recharge and power through crisis events with these strategies

As mentioned above, most of us reach for caffeinated drinks when we need a boost to power through long days when we are tired, but if we are also suffering from lack of sleep, we need something more substantial.

Although we may not have the luxury of getting a good night’s rest during or after disaster events, here are ways that we can trick our mind and body into feeling rested even if we are not in a position to get optimum sleep. One of them is power napping.

Master the art of power napping

Customize your power naps

Not all naps produce the same results, but you can choose the right kind of nap for your needs. Some naps will give you enough pep to hit the ground running when you wake up; other naps will take you longer to shake off the groggy feeling before you can get up to running speed. You can customize your naps to increase energy, help keep your spirits up, improve cognitive function, and reduce the overall effects of sleep deprivation.

It’s all in the timing

Sleeping for 15-20 minutes slows down brain activity long enough to recharge your internal “batteries” enough to give you temporary alertness and energy. It is recommended that on long trips, you should take a brief nap (not longer than 20 minutes) at least every four hours.  The same principle can apply to help you stay alert during and after disaster events.

If you are a coffee lover, you might want to down a cup just before a short nap. In about 15 – 30 minutes, the caffeine will kick in, and its effects will be felt about the time you wake up from your mini-nap. Rowrr!

A few words of caution: too much caffeine in your system can wreak havoc in your body. The Mayo Clinic advises, “Up to 400 milligrams (mg) of caffeine a day appears to be safe for most healthy adults. That’s roughly the amount of caffeine in four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola or two “energy shot” drinks.”

If critical thinking skills and cognitive memory is your goal, then a 60-minute nap will help you to keep track of facts and to think fast on your feet. Dr. Sara Mednick says that this is because a one-hour nap usually includes the slow-wave type of sleep which is important for cognitive memory processing. This type of nap may also take longer to shake off the groggy feeling afterward, so allow yourself time to adjust to the longer wake-up time.

A 90-minute nap is the best kind for improving mood, learning, creative thinking ability, and coping skills.  For most people, the first 90 minutes of sleep includes a full cycle of rapid-eye-movement (REM) sleep, which is the dreaming phase. During the course of a full night’s sleep, we usually spend about a quarter of it in the REM stage, which recurs about every 90 minutes.  Dr. Mednick notes that a 90-minute nap does not usually result in sleep inertia or a groggy feeling when we wake up.

Create a safety zone if you are in chaotic or unsafe conditions

Regardless of which type of nap you choose, consider these strategies before you snooze:

  • Check and double-check that you will be out of harm’s way from rising water, buildings that could shift or collapse, gunfire, and other elements of surprise that could arise while you are sleeping.

  • If possible, have someone serve as a watchman while you sleep. You will be able to rest easier knowing that someone is covering your back and will wake you if needed.

  • If you find yourself alone, you can rig expedient alarm systems with found materials, such as clusters of empty tin cans pinned to curtains or attached to tripwires. Nearly invisible monofilament fishing line can be attached to a bell or clusters of tin cans inside of the house. This line can be threaded underneath a door and tied in strategic locations outdoors. In the old days of New Orleans, some residents laid thin slate tiles on the ground beneath windows. The crunching of tile broken by an intruder’s footsteps alerted the homeowner, and often deterred the prowler as well. Portable motion sensor alarms are an excellent prep item that can be rigged with tripwires which can greatly extend your protected perimeters.

Do what you can to get comfortable

  • A camping style hammock is a practical solution for when ground surface conditions are too uncomfortable for sleeping. It is quick and easy to set up and take down.  You could even hammock over water if you are stuck in a flooded or waterlogged area. Some hammocks are designed to keep you dry even in a rainstorm (or you could hang a tarp overhead). There are also bug nets made specifically for hammocks which will ensure comfort in mosquito-infested areas.  As a bonus, the gentle rocking motion is supremely comforting to most people sleeping in a hammock. Here’s more information that will help you get the most out of this popular sleep style which has been in use for thousands of years around the world.

  • Darkness is your friend. If necessary, use a sleep mask, bandanna, or blindfold to cover your eyes.

  • If you can’t get to a quiet place to nap, consider using earplugs if you are in a safe place or else have someone keep watch while you sleep.

Naps are no substitute for a good night of sleep.

Naps can help us power through rough days, but they are no substitute for seven or eight hours of sleep which normally contains four or five REM cycles. Studies show that we have linked a lack of enough REM sleep to reduced coping skills and abnormal defensive responses to threats, both of which are critical for survival.

So, as soon as you are able, make it a priority to get adequate rest to help you stay sharp, keep your spirits up, and to function at your best to meet survival challenges safely during and after a long crisis.

What are your favorite tips and tricks for preventing burnout caused by fatigue? Please share them! Your comment could be valuable to others in a survival situation.

About GrizzlyetteAdams

My brother called me Grizzly Adams like it was a bad thing. I took it as a compliment and fashioned my cyber name after Mr. Adams who dropped out of society in 1852 and made the wilderness his home. I pretty much did the same thing over twenty years ago and discovered what Mark Twain said is true, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.”

I watched a few popular prepper’s myths bite the dust and also learned not to depend entirely upon stored supplies; instead, I celebrate them with a view to how temporary they are. Skills and knowledge are far more enduring and are among the best back up plans we can ever have.

Most of all, I also discovered that the so-called Hard Times can be the best of times.

I love to share with my readers the things I have learned in the way of being a prepared and experienced survivalist, bush crafter, herbalist, hunter/gatherer, primitive organic gardener (no store-bought stuff!), plus a bunch of other things related and unrelated. I am also an unapologetic thriftyista; I know that being frugal can buy us the freedom to enjoy the things we love most.

There are several books inside of me that are threatening to spring out soon (watch for announcements on my Twitter page:

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  • Excellent article! There isn’t a whole lot of really original material being published about prepping, but this is a topic that I haven’t seen discussed in a very long time – and it is vitally important.

    • Somehow, my response to your comment got lost in cyberspace, or else I messed up some kind of way. My apologies if you happen to see a duplicate post later!

      Thank you, Stephen. Yes, this is an important topic. I became painfully aware of it in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina when I found myself alone and trapped among strangers. (See my response to Sammy’s comment.)

  • If you have sleep apnea like I do, be sure to provide battery power and an inverter so you can use your CPAP machine when the power is out. Also, they sell 12 V DC powered CPAP machines now.

    • Great suggestion! Many people are CPAP users these days. I wonder if those machines could handle rechargeable batteries that can be recharged via solar chargers? Do you think they would be strong enough?

    • Yes, that is true, but the O-ring was not the only factor. It was determined that poor judgment as a result of sleep deprivation also contributed to the explosion. Carmel Harrington condensed the problem neatly in a nutshell in the book, The Sleep Diet:

      “…in the case of the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, it has now been officially recognized that sleep deprivation played a crucial role in the decision to launch the shuttle. This decision resulted in the explosion of the space shuttle within 75 seconds of launching. In the Presidential Inquiry that followed it was reported that human error and poor judgment related to sleep loss and shift work during the early morning hours contributed largely to the decision to launch, despite the fact that there was a red flashing light warning that a problem was being detected by the system. The investigation found that key managers had obtained less than two hours of sleep the night before and had been on duty since 1 a.m. that morning.”

      John, thank you for the link to that fascinating article about military-issued drugs given to troops in many countries. (I saved it in my files.)

    • And a big ‘Thank You’ back to you! In my years of researching how to deal with this (see my response to Sammy), I was frustrated by the lack of information about this topic during a crisis situation. I wanted to fix that problem!

  • Great topic:
    This is something we trained for in the Army with sleep depravation for up to 72 hrs. It’s hard and the stress can strain relationships until you learn how to deal with it and each other. I had to learn to listen to my soldiers and when they told me I was done and needed to sleep then I was done and needed to sleep and I had to learn to trust them to get things done. I’d always make sure they got some by staying up and doing but that comes with consequences. The team must look after one another in this respect.
    Long term fatigue in a crisis will extremely hard to deal with. I doubt I can get anyone with a life, kids and job etc to train this way in a preparedness group setting because it is just too hard. I don’t miss it either lol
    I hope y’all take this to heart because I don’t want you to make some of the mistakes of things I’ve done and said not being in my right mind.
    Yeah Leo your right and I’ve got a setup for my wife and her CPAP machine because it is important. I don’t know how long I can maintain it for but I will as long as possible.

    • Thank you, Matt. It seems that the training does some good to let soldiers know what to expect when seriously sleep-deprived. What was the military’s solution for dealing with it? Coffee, drugs, naps, or…?

  • This is why being a “lone wolf survivalist” probably won’t work in the long run. Sooner or later, we all have to sleep. If you don’t have someone to take turns standing watch, I’m just not sure how that would work in the long run.

    And mind you, I’m one of those odd people who can actually get along with 2 or 3 hours of sleep if necessary. When I was a kid, I thought EVERYONE stayed awake reading until 1 am, just like I thought everyone “borrowed” their dad’s flashlight and hid it under the covers to get away with staying up late. But when I told my friends at school, they all moved away from me in the cafeteria. “Not everybody”, they seemed to be saying, “just you, ya little weirdo”

    On a more serious note, we should remember that in Soviet prisons, folks who had been recently arrested were not given water or allowed to sleep the first two days BEFORE being interrogated for the first time. Those godammed Bolsheviks were diabolically clever at crushing resistance that way.

    • yea, I remember those brain washing days, two to three hours sleep, eating only starchy carbohydrates, endless repetitious tasks, folding clothes, over and over, forced to walk so I couldn’t think what the heck where, what I was doing there …

      … ah, boot camp.

    • The whole idea of sleep deprivation hit home with me in 2005, when I found myself alone and trapped among not-so-nice strangers during Hurricane Katrina for almost two weeks. (I may write more about this in future articles.) Since then, I have been knocking myself out trying to figure out what I could do to keep from losing my mind if I ever found myself in a similar situation in the future.

      It was seriously rough. < —- (understatement!)

      This article was born as a result of that frustration and a lot of personal research.

  • This has been my experience in caregiving for elderly parents. It’s not like when you’re young parents with new babies. There’s plenty of energy for that. But two months of worried concerned at all hours sucks the life outta ya. Thankfully, it did end. But it took four months to recover health and even then there were many things that never got back to normal. It also took a long time to recover relationships that took a hit because there wasn’t anyone to willing to give relief. That kind of aggravation leads to awful feelings of being stuck with burnout with no end in sight. Only my relationship with God kept me from going off the deep end in despair.

    That experience has given me many thoughts about how to handle disasters and general chaos. Naps are definitely the way back to more normal. Recognizing that adrenal burnout is real and different with each individual goes a long way. Communication skill and patience among all parties is paramount.

    Thank you for this great post!

    • Thank you for your comment! Yes, those wake up (pun!) calls are quite alarming in “normal” crisis situations, and even more so when we think of this happening in long term SHTF situations.

    • Coming from you, this is a high honor. Folks like you and Daisy write so well, it makes me want to put my quill back into the goose! (This sentiment was shamelessly stolen from the American humorist, Fred Allen.)

  • “The Challenger space shuttle explosion on January 28, 1986, was linked to fatigue and sleep loss which contributed to the fatal launch that killed everyone on board.”

    As someone who read the Challenger report (by Richard Feynmann), fatigue had nothing to do with this disaster. It was a design flaw coupled with weather conditions.

    All in all I agree with what you said, though.

  • I have been using a CPAP machine for over 14 years and have yet to find a mask that actually works for me….I have a big box in my closet with all the masks that I have tried. The latest one has worked the best but still don’t make the grade. Installed an adjustable bed (with the hope that it would help my apnea and low back pain). So far, the back pain is much better but apnea scales are not much better. I do power nap most days to help with the sleepiness and memory problems I deal with. I think an astronaut helmet would work…LOL! Sleep is so important, we have a small farm and find ourselves struggling to work on projects that are desperately needed.

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