Sleep disruption is one of the most common symptoms of trauma. This is true whether your trauma was due to physical violence, childhood neglect or abuse, sexual assault, a medical condition, or if your symptoms are due to chronic stress.
Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder and it is estimated that up to one-third of adults experience insomnia. In addition to insomnia, nightmares are often a symptom of trauma.
Root Cause of Sleep Disruptions
All causes of trauma create the same underlying physiological and emotional impacts on the brain and body.
Our brain and body are tightly connected, but it’s easy to forget this. You may spend hours tossing and turning in your bed, but not realize that more than anxious thoughts are keeping you awake.
When you go through trauma, your body turns on its automatic protective system. This is called the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the fight, flight, or freeze system. It’s controlled by the nervous system and happens whether you want it to or not.
Your sympathetic nervous system is designed to protect you. When it’s triggered, your body releases a storm of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These work to keep you high alert, ready to respond to any threat. In an ideal world, your body would relax and return to a place of stability once the threat is gone.
But trauma can cause your body to stay stuck in this fight, flight, or freeze response. When this happens, you experience anxiety, hyper-alertness, tensed muscles, increased heart rate, and more physical markers of stress.
As you can imagine, living in this chronically stressed state isn’t good for your ability to sleep well.
The Ways Trauma Impacts Sleep
Trauma survivors often experience nightmares. This can happen when the brain is trying to process memories of the trauma. Nightmares typically happen in the early morning hours and often cause you to wake up. Nightmares can cause physical reactions, like an increased heartrate or sweating.
Nightmares can be very distressing. They can create strong physical and emotional feelings of fear and panic. If you’ve experienced them, you know just how true this is. Once you’ve awoken from a nightmare, it can be hard to fall back asleep.
Trouble Falling Asleep
Trauma can also make it hard for you to fall asleep. Difficulty falling asleep is called sleep onset insomnia. As you can imagine, when you’re stuck in the state of high alert and stress created by trauma, it may be hard to fall asleep.
Difficulty falling asleep is one of the most common manifestations of stress or trauma. When lying in bed, many people find that their mind starts to race and their body can’t wind down in order to sleep.
Unfortunately, even if you’re lucky enough to be able to fall asleep, trauma can also interfere with your ability to stay asleep. After you doze off, the stress hormones circulating in your body can interfere with a regular sleep cycle. This can lead to overnight awakening and for some people, awakenings can last hours.
Stress and Anxiety Around Sleep
Unfortunately, once you’ve experienced troubles sleeping, you may develop even more stress and anxiety around sleep itself. As you grow to anticipate difficulty at bedtime or in the middle of the night, worries grow. You may dread bedtime just because you know you won’t be able to sleep or because you wake up with troubling nightmares.
No matter how trauma is impacting your sleep, there are steps you can take to try to lessen its effects.
Researchers have found that achieving restorative sleep can be key to healing from trauma. With this in mind, it’s very important to find a way to address your sleep issues.
How Therapy Can Help
Of course, if your trauma-related insomnia persists, it’s important to reach out for professional help. Therapy can help with all types of insomnia, as well as with trauma-related nightmares.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia or CBT-i is an effective therapy for reducing insomnia symptoms. By changing your thinking and habits around sleep, insomnia symptoms can improve. As your sleep improves, it is easier to cope with and manage your trauma symptoms. EMDR therapy can also help with rewiring traumatic memories. Therapy can provide you with specific, actionable goals and techniques to address your sleep and trauma.
If you would like to learn more about addressing trauma-related insomnia, please contact us at DC Metro Sleep and Psychotherapy.