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While never becoming a Navy SEAL, I completed a few of the major hurdles during my time in the BUD/s (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) pipeline, like Hell Week and Pool Comp. These events not only challenge students physically, but mentally as well. One of these big mental hurdles I experienced was pushing through the constant sleep deprivation.
Functioning on little to no sleep during training is all about preparing students for what will be expected of them once they graduate and make it onto a team, where it’s hammered home that things only get tougher and “the only easy day was yesterday.”
What I’d like to do in this article is provide my perspective on how I personally pushed through the sleep deprivation I dealt with at BUD/s and what that experience has given me to fall back on when I’m faced with pulling all-nighters when I do happen to encounter them these days.
I feel like the ability to mentally persevere over a lack of sleep is an important skill to have and one that everyone should be familiar enough with to know their limitations.
Lessons from Hell Week
Staying awake for five days straight during Hell Week was no easy feat and I’m not about to tell you that I could easily do it again without the environment I was in and the men to the left and right of me in my boat crew.
I do know in the back of my mind that my body did make it through and that accomplishment is powerful to reflect back on, whether it’s physical or mental adversity I’m pushing through. This is why it’s important to put yourself into situations and experiences that take you outside your comfort zone and force you to learn a little more about yourself.
While I’m discussing my experience here and sharing what I’ve been through, this isn’t about reliving your own Hell Week or saying that you need to have gone through something like that to be able to push through sleep deprivation and continue to function on “most” of your cylinders.
Hell Week is fairly well documented online in terms of what BUD/s students go through, so I’ll save you the recap. I would like to share some aspects of it though, as a way to point out what I felt made the difference in being able to stay awake and what makes up the core of my knowledge base today I reflect on.
An Object in Motion Stays in Motion
Just like Newton’s first law of motion, I feel being in constant physical motion during Hell Week was the largest contributor to being able to persevere. Whether it was moving as a team with a boat on our heads or lifting logs during Log PT, the physical demands absolutely contributed to pushing through the sleep deprivation.
The take home here is that if you’re pushing through your own sleep deprivation, the more “activity” you can put yourself through the better. Get up, take a walk, stretch, anything to get your body moving.
Cold, Wet and Miserable
The next factor I felt contributed to overcoming Mr. Sandman is being completely miserable. I was constantly cold and wet, even the few times we got the chance to shower off and put on a clean pair of tri-shorts (think Under Armor), we were met with a nice dip in the Pacific to get back to normal.
Don’t break out the water hose quite yet though, all this means is that anything you can do to avoid getting comfortable will help. If you’re in front of a computer during an all-nighter, sit on an uncomfortable stool and crank down the air conditioner if possible. It may seem counterintuitive, but being comfortable will promote sleep, not impede it.
Feast or Famine
Throughout Hell Week, we never had to deal with hunger. While I feel that knowing how your body will handle a lack of food is another important thing to experience, I never went hungry during Hell Week.
From what I can remember, we ate four times a day, including Mid-Rats, which are basically a second dinner around midnight. Meals were either as much as we could pile on our plates in the galley, or two MREs. The heaters were removed though to add a little more mental anguish of having to eat cold MREs. Also I think the instructors didn’t want us using them as hand warmers and burning ourselves because we were too cold to know how hot they were.
We were also given snacks at various times throughout the day and constantly drinking water to stay hydrated. In fact, at times we were forced to drink a certain amount of water to ensure we were properly hydrated.
Food is important, particularly protein and fats to help keep your body going. If you’re staying up, avoid the carbs and focus on smaller protein and fat-based snacks like beef jerky, trail mix, hard boiled eggs, etc. Also avoid big heavy meals, I’m sure everyone has experienced the lethargic feeling after a big meal.
Hydration is equally important for not only overall body health, but a few symptoms of dehydration are drowsiness and fatigue. Dehydration is nothing to take lightly and with the stress and negative impact on your immune system already occurring due to lack of sleep, it’s important to ensure you’re properly hydrated.
While coffee can technically count somewhat towards your water intake, it’s best to regulate your intake of caffeine, even if you’re using it to help you stay awake. A big gulp of coffee may seem like something you’d want to try, but it can actually be counterintuitive and lead to an energy crash. Shoot for a cup of coffee every two hours or so. Energy drinks can also hit you with a crash too, so use them carefully.
Fresh and Clean
While I mentioned the hygiene stations we’d hit during Hell Week to shower off, they were infrequent and short lived. I knew we’d just be getting wet again soon and tried to enjoy it as much as possible.
That being said, even little things can make a difference when you’re trying to stay awake. Washing your face with cold water or even taking a cold shower can be beneficial.
Shoot for bright light too, it’s amazing what a difference light makes. Saying goodbye to the sun was a challenge each day during Hell Week for me. I definitely noticed that my energy level changed immediately once the sun came up each day.
Even if the only light you have is indoors, turn on every overhead light and lamp you can. Turn the brightness all the way up on your monitor too if you can handle it, provided it doesn’t distract too much from what you’re working on.
To Nap or Not to Nap
During Hell Week, we were “provided the opportunity” to get a total of four hours of sleep. It was split into two 2-hour sleep periods on different days. I say “provided the opportunity” because I was one of those that didn’t sleep. There were a few of us in the tent on the beach that stayed up, rather than deal with the torture of waking back up.
We were also wet and lying down on cots, which didn’t make sleep come any easier. I definitely tried to sleep, but gave up after about an hour of trying unsuccessfully. I couldn’t shut off my brain or convince myself sleep would be beneficial.
Taking a short nap during an all-nighter is something that’s a personal preference in my opinion. When it comes to short naps, I still haven’t been able to replicate the “refreshed” feeling each time I wake up from a nap, despite experimenting with different amounts of time. It’s enough to make me question the benefit when I’m faced with the opportunity to rack out for a bit.
Stacking your sleep before a known period of time you’ll be awake can be beneficial and is an option too. Meaning that if you have the opportunity to take it easy and sleep as much as possible the day before, it may help you out.
Hell Week Euphoria
I’ll share a few more things about what I experienced being awake for 5 1/2 days during Hell Week and the euphoria that set in after about two days.
Around Wednesday morning of Hell Week, I was on auto-pilot, literally. Those are the foggiest days of my Hell Week memories, but what I do remember vividly is hallucinating quite a few times and even falling asleep, which I’ll get to in a bit.
One of the last evolutions of Hell Week is Around the World, where each boat crew paddles for hours around the entire island of Coronado. We did have to portage in one place though, since the Silver Strand is connected to land.
We had some BUD/s students that were rollbacks and not in a class at the time, swim up to our boats to toss in some bags of food to give us some fuel to keep going. Due to it being Thursday night and my euphoria setting in heavily, I mistook one of the students swimming up in his black dive mask and wet suit as a seal and remember getting spooked, yelling and pulling my paddle in to protect myself, nearly hitting him in the face.
The guy paddling behind me had to grab my arm and say “dude, it’s cool, stop!” I then realized what was going on and became incredibly thankful for the McDonalds Cheeseburgers that had just been tossed into our boat.
Again during another leg of Around the World, I thought a dead tree on the bank of San Diego bay was moving and told my boat crew to watch out and that it was coming right for us! This was about two hours before I was in the number 1 position at the front of the boat, calling the stroke count out loud (to ensure everyone was paddling the same) and fell asleep and into the water mid-sentence.
Needless to say I immediately woke up and realized I was the entertainment for my boat crew and few other boat crews around us, who laughed hysterically at my misfortune. What added insult to injury was that I was almost dry when I decided to go for a swim. I certainly laugh about everything today though.
Hopefully this article has given you some ideas on how to stay awake if you’re forced to deal with sleep deprivation in the future. Stay positive and look at it as an opportunity to learn about your body and what works to help you stay awake.
It’s through adversity and experiences like these that we learn more about ourselves and all that we’re truly able to accomplish with the right mental attitude and outlook.
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Great article Bryan! I learned a few things, and can definitely understand the hallucination thing. Had to stay up 58 hours straight at work, and the last few hours I was on my own, but I could have sworn there were people walking in the halls. And I'm not sure how productive I was the last few hours, but we did win the client's business! It helps to prevail!
This is a very interesting article, as I currently work a seven days on-seven days off schedule. My experience would suggest that sleep patterns can be modified long term. In short, with practice you can become acclimated and function effectively with much less sleep than you think. The hard part is wilfully attempting to get to that pattern. At times in the past 4 years, there have been weeks where the phone has gone off every 15 minutes or so. In those circumstances, I notice that my ability to concentrate degrades, particularly if I cannot get 2 hrs of uninterrupted sleep every 36 hrs. I use my iPad soltaire game to test my concentration. When it degrades, I get someone to take my phone for a while to sleep. The problem for me is that I can be called to do highly complex tasks at a moments notice.
In the long run though, it is remarkable how much our sleep patterns are learned behavior. "Stacking sleep" and becoming accustomed to much less sleep are means to make it possible to work much longer without significantly degrading motor or intellectual skills.
As a former Bering Sea and North Pacific crabber, I agree with the importance of meals, misery, and motion in battling sleep deprivation. My experience was over weeks and months at sea during the course of a given season. You need 2.5 solid hours of REM sleep every 48-72 hours to avoid hallucinations and tweeking over a long term grind. It works for that type of work, but after weeks/months you still develop a thousand yard stare. I can't imagine that's productive in a tactical environment. You simply learn to function on less than all cylinders, as explained above. Another healthy lesson in pain.
@randypb Hallucinating is an "interesting" side effect going through being awake that long. I think a lot of it comes from certain senses becoming heightened, while others degrade. In retrospect, I actually enjoy the memories of my experiences with that. Thanks for sharing!
@CharlesJMiller Thanks Charles, glad you liked it. I completely agree on sleep patterns being modified long term. I can't imagine never getting more than 15 minutes of shut eye over a prolonged period of time. I feel like that would be worse than just staying awake in some cases.
Highly complex tasks become impossible as the timeline without sleep continues in my experience. For example, we played a soccer game on the beach around Thursday of Hell Week if my hazy memory serves me correctly.
I do remember not even being able to kick the ball a few times, due to not being able to calculate for the continued movement of the ball in relation to where my foot was. Super frustrating!
Thanks for sharing your experience!
@Coopersfriend It's interesting to learn the importance of meals, misery and motion isn't it? I can imagine crabbing needs a tremendous amount of focus to avoid all the perils of just being at sea, not to mention operating heavy machinery and equipment.
The main photo in the article is my "thousand yard stare" taken on Thursday afternoon of Hell Week. I don't even remember seeing the camera, it took me asking one of the guys in my boat crew when the photo was taken for me to know that!
Thanks for the comment, stay safe out there!
@RedRaven Thanks brother, glad you enjoyed it!