How Traumatic Events Impact Sleep?

Roughly 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. These traumatic events may be physical and/or psychological and can have devastating impacts on one’s life. One of the most common problems people face after encountering a traumatic event, is significant disruptions in sleep patterns, which is significantly detrimental to one’s body and mind.

The Effects of Trauma

Three emotions typically accompany a traumatic experience: fear, helplessness, and horror. These feelings can be overwhelming as well as persistent – lasting for days, weeks, or even years.

After experiencing a traumatic event, it is normal to have anxiety, recurrent thoughts about the experience, and insomnia for several days. However, for many, these symptoms persist in up to 30% of individuals who experience a trauma – often resulting in a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Acute Stress Disorder.

PTSD is a psychological condition characterized by recurrent re-experiences of the trauma. The symptoms of PTSD are categorized into three groups:

–       Re-experience: recurring memories of the trauma in the form of hallucinations, flashbacks, or nightmares.

–       Avoidance: avoiding and withdrawing from any person, place, or thing that reminds them of the event.

–       Hyperarousal: persistent fear, insomnia, outbursts, irritability, mood swings, increased startle response, or hypervigilance.

The symptoms of Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) are similar to those found in PTSD, but are shorter in duration, lasting between 3 – 30 days, and include dissociative symptoms that are not found in PTSD.

Individuals who do not fall under the classification of PTSD or ASD can still experience similar symptoms. It is common for trauma survivors to experience random flashbacks, mood swings, irritability, nervousness, social anxiety, and changes in appetite.

Sleep & Trauma

Sleep plays a vital in determining our mental state, which is why it is so important to address the effect trauma has on sleep. The disruption of one’s sleep wreaks havoc in the brain and impairs an individual’s ability to regulate emotions and process trauma – meaning trauma survivors get caught in a vicious cycle. The stress and anxiety brought on by a traumatic experience reduces both the quality and quantity of one’s sleep, and this sleep deprivation decreases a trauma victim’s ability to cope with the trauma causing it. A truly vicious cycle.

Many of the of trauma-induced symptoms found in PTSD cause sleep disorders. Symptoms like hyperarousal cause individuals to become hypervigilant and paranoid. For instance, an individual who fears being attacked in their sleep due to a previous trauma may lie awake at night, ready to defend themselves. Or, they may sleep lightly and wake up every time a floorboard creeks. Unfortunately, these aren’t just isolated incidents. Of those who experienced trauma, sleep loss is most likely to last for months rather than days. And, for these individuals who are attempting to cope with trauma, these sleep problems feed into that vicious cycle as their trauma-induced sleep deprivation intensifies their trauma-related mental issues. Aside from exacerbating the mental effects that trauma causes, a lack of sleep also increases one’s risk of stroke, seizures, obesity, and heart disease.

What Now?

While attempting to move on after a traumatic life event, one can find themselves in a battle for their own mental peace and clarity. Whether you are currently coping with a trauma and have found yourself struggling to maintain a healthy sleep cycle or you simply want to safeguard yourself from the emotional and physical effects of a negative sleep pattern, the following tips can help you achieve optimal sleep and mental health.

–       Try guided meditation: search online for guided meditation videos – it will help you decompress and calm your mind before bedtime. Deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation are also techniques that will allow you to wind down after a stressful day.

–       Aromatherapy: buy an oil diffuser and calming essential oils like chamomile, lavender, ylang ylang, and rose.

–       Start a relaxing bedtime ritual: every night before bedtime, do something that relaxes you. Cozy up in some blankets with a hot cup of tea (decaf!) and a good book or soak in a bath full of lavender and Epsom salts.

–       Sleep in a safe environment: Turn your sleeping space into your own personal oasis where you feel safe — even if it is not in your bed. You can also try to rearrange your furniture, use a nightlight, eliminate distractions, or try a white noise machine.

–       Decrease screen time: turn off all electronic devices 1 hour before bedtime to promote relaxation and ready your brain for sleep.