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Has Trauma Affected Your Sleep?

Updated: Dec 3, 2023

Or have you struggled with good quality sleep most of your life? (Try the Adverse Childhood Experiences ACES quiz). Hypervigilance and hyperarousal as a result of our body’s trauma response can significantly contribute to insomnia. This is also called trauma-induced insomnia.

Trauma affects your sleep in a few ways: difficulty falling asleep (onset insomnia), waking up more during the night, having nightmares, and also struggling falling back asleep.

Trauma can change how the body moves through sleep cycles (N1, N2, N3, REM).

Recent research suggests that rapid eye movement (REM) sleep appears to be the stage most affected by traumatic experiences. It is known that REM sleep is important for storing memories and processing emotions. It is also known that dreams during REM sleep tend to be more fantastical and bizarre. So naturally, having nightmares is one indication of trauma.

Trauma survivors can often have dreams that replay the traumatic event. This can be either:

a) an explicit replay of the event, or

b) an indirect expression of the event whereby they contain trauma-related emotion, details, and symbols.

Nightmares from trauma and childhood trauma
Trauma affects sleep. Trauma can cause nightmares and insomnia.

A possible explanation is that such dreams are caused by the brain’s limbic system responding to fear, and shows us that the mind’s attempts to work through a traumatic experience.


So although troubles around sleep and distressing dreams can be stressful, they also tell us that the brain is trying to heal from the trauma.

The research tells us that although trauma affects your sleep, if you get enough sleep after a traumatic event, you can actually reduce intrusive trauma-related memories and make them less disturbing.

In fact, managing sleep issues in the early treatment of trauma can actually reduce the risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Reduce the negative impacts of PTSD by sleeping more after a traumatic event
Getting more sleep can improve PTSD symptoms.

It is no surprise that insomnia is one of the most common issues, and this generally resolves with time. However, more severe continuous sleep disorders are usually seen in people with higher levels of post-traumatic stress and PTSD. Some people can suffer from persistent nightmare disorders and parasomnia (abnormal movements, talk, emotions and actions happen while you're sleeping. Eg: sleepwalking, nightmare disorder, sleep-related eating disorder and sleep paralysis).


What about childhood trauma and sleep?


Childhood trauma can have a significant impact on childhood brain development, and can continue to affect a person’s health into adulthood. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) have been found to increase the risk of mental and physical health problems

Trauma experienced during childhood can also affect the severity of insomnia in adulthood. In adult patients diagnosed with insomnia, those with a high number of ACEs wake up more often during the night and have more disturbed sleep than those with few or no ACEs. There is a clear indication that childhood trauma affects sleep in adulthood as well.


So what can we do about it?


Yes, trauma affects your sleep, but there are definitely ways to improve your sleep quality. Firstly, exercise compassionate thoughts towards yourself. Acknowledge that you have been through a traumatic event and be patient with yourself.


Next, try to have realistic expectations about the time it will take for your body to heal.

However, there are some practical things you can do for your sleep in the context of trauma:

  1. Maintain a regular sleep schedule: Routine is important for getting restful, quality sleep. Try going to sleep and getting up at the same time every day, even on weekends, helps signal your body to rest at the appropriate times. Routine also signals to your body and limbic system that unpredictability is no longer detected.

  • Sleep where you feel safe: Traumatic events may leave you feeling unsafe, which can make it challenging to feel calm enough to fall asleep. Think about what you can change in your room to make your sleeping environment feel safer. This can include someone else sleeping close by, playing some binaural beats or sounds of nature, keeping a phone nearby, or keeping a dim light on.

  • Engage in relaxing activities:

Relaxation practises to reduce the negative impacts on sleep after trauma
Engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to improve PTSD symptoms

Activating the body’s relaxation response is a natural way to combat stress. Relaxation practices such as meditation, Yin yoga and Tai Chi are some ways to stimulate this response to calm the body and mind before bed. They activate your parasympathetic nervous system which signals your body that you are in rest mode.

Feeling calm and safe to reduce the negative impacts of trauma affecting sleep
Engaging the parasympathetic nervous system to improve PTSD symptoms using scent or by creating a safe and aesthetic home environment

Think about certain scents that make you feel calm and safe. These could be scents that make you feel nostalgic streaming gently through a diffuser or even a relaxing blend of essential oils for your pillow.

  • Do not force sleep: If you find yourself tossing and turning for more than 20 minutes, get out of bed and engage in a calming, quiet activity instead. Be sure not to turn on any bright light. This can be a warm bath, reading, or listening to music. Go back to bed once you begin feeling tired.

  • Seek a trauma-informed practitioner: There is no one right way to process a traumatic experience, but one important aspect of healing from trauma is knowing when to ask for support. Trauma-informed doctors, counsellors, social workers, chaplains, and religious leaders can help people cope with and heal from the consequences of a traumatic event. Be sure to tell your trauma-informed professional about how trauma has affected your sleep, so that they can also help you alleviate the domino effect poor sleep quality has on you.

You are also welcome to book an appointment with me to discuss your trauma recovery.


For additional information on sleep and trauma, refer to these sources:


Sources


Physiology, Sleep Stages


The relationship between childhood trauma and poor sleep health in adulthood


Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Sleep Problems and PTSD


Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)


Sleep and Combat-Related Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (Military-related PTSD)

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