Losing sleep- Armed Forces Journal
At the U.S. Army Ranger School, one of the military’s most renowned courses for combat arms and special operations forces, soldiers are trained and tested on individual and small-unit war-fighting skills in a high-stress environment. To pump up the pressure, the soldiers are deprived of much sleep during the 61 days of training. Many wash out. Of 89 infantry lieutenants who began Ranger School with me in the fall of 2001, only eight made it straight through to graduation.
But the Rangers who graduate have proved that they can overcome adversity and lead under pressure. Soldiers learn that their bodies can endure far more adversity than they previously thought possible, and that they can still fight effectively under high stress and after long deprivation of food and sleep. Ranger School makes other challenges pale in comparison; the training sets a high bar that is unlikely to be surpassed thereafter.
So why argue with apparent success? Recent neuroscientific findings show that the prolonged stress and sleep deprivation of Ranger training actually work against learning and, moreover, can degrade long-term mental and physical health. The same is true of other elite training programs — and of many troops who serve on lengthy combat deployments.
Applying the new research can help the Army better train soldiers to handle combat stress, and that could lead to more efficient combat operations, less collateral damage and casualties, and fewer soldiers who experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
NEUROSCIENCE OF STRESS
Stress is a natural and adaptive reaction that allows individuals to cope and respond to threats. Short bursts of stress during military training can be beneficial; they expose soldiers to specific combat situations they will face, teach them how to manage the stressor and foster the warrior ethos.
But evolution has geared the human stress response to last about 30 seconds, enough to facilitate fight or flight. Evolution has not adapted our brains or bodies to handle weeks or months of prolonged stress — the kind that can feature in the two-month Ranger School and yearlong combat tours.
In a stressful situation, the brain’s amygdala activates the body’s hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and the sympathetic nervous system, which produce the physiological and metabolic changes of the physiological stress response. The amygdala is itself regulated by two other parts of the brain. The hippocampus helps place the stress in context, while the prefrontal cortex, connected to executive function and working memory, helps abate fear.