Happy Monday! Did you sleep well last night? If the answer is no, you’re not alone. The Center for Disease Control estimates that over 35% of Americans do not get the recommended amount of sleep. Look at the PTSD population, and that percentage rises much closer to 100%. I’m sure the same is true for the parent population. It’s certainly true for me.
Whether I’m soothing restless toddlers, struggling with anxiety, or combating PTSD nightmares, I rarely get a good night’s rest. So I really appreciate today’s guest post. Agnes Green, a sleep researcher from Tuck sleep (which is linked in my Resources page) describes how sleep disruptions can arise after trauma, and what we can do to help ease them. This is a topic I could certainly use my fair share of help with, and if you have PTSD, are a parent, or both, I’m sure you can too.
Before I direct you to the post, I want to remind you that Off-Fridays, THE Mental Illness Blog Share is open for links on the subject of addiction. I know it’s scary to discuss, but there are a lot of major problems in the recovery industry, not to mention the generally terrible attitude toward addicts. We won’t change those realities unless we talk about those realities, so I urge you to join in the link-up by adding your links. Help make this a truly revolutionary addiction-fighting resource!
And now, let’s meet the lovely Agnes.
Agnes Green is a researcher for the sleep science site Tuck Sleep. She holds two master’s degrees in the social sciences from the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. She sleeps most soundly after a kettlebell workout, with breeze wafting in through a cracked window, and on a medium-firm mattress in Portland, Oregon.
How To Literally Sleep Away Your Trauma
What many people don’t understand about trauma is how insidious it can be. “Try to get more sleep,” the well-meaning, unwitting friends advise. They’re right: sleep is a natural remedy proven to ease trauma. The majority of people living with PTSD desperately want to get rest. Often, however, it’s not so simple because trauma literally keeps us awake.
Let’s look at why that is, and how—in spite of the sleep-stealing powers of trauma–you can get good sleep.
According to the National Center for PTSD, about 60 percent of men and 50 percent of women will experience at least one traumatic event during their lifetimes. About 7 or 8 out of every 100 people (7 to 8 percent of the population) will have PTSD at some point. About 7.7 million Americans 18 and older have PTSD. The disorder is suffered by 67 percent of people exposed to mass violence. Rape is the most common culprit behind PTSD: 65 percent of men and 45.9 percent of women who are raped are diagnosed with it. The American Psychological Association estimates that as many as 66 percent of children will be victims of trauma and between 25 and 43 percent of children will experience sexual abuse.
Trauma’s Effects on Sleep
Anxiety and sleep-deprivation are connected via a self-reinforcing feedback loop. Healthy slumber combats anxiety—and vice versa: feeling less anxious leads to sounder sleep. Insomnia feeds anxiety and anxiety keeps us up at night. According to The Cleveland Clinic, two-thirds of patients referred to sleep disorders centers have a psychiatric disorder. “Anxiety is an emotion that actually wakes us up,” Dr. Steve Orma, author of Stop Worrying and Go to Sleep: How to Put Insomnia to Bed for Good, told The Huffington Post. “There are all kinds of physical changes happening that ramp you up, which is the exact opposite state of what you need to be in when you’re trying to fall asleep.”
A report from the Model Systems Knowledge Translation Center (MSKTC) noted that 60 percent of people diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) will experience difficulty falling and/or staying asleep. Paradoxically, sleep can also play a role in worsening trauma-related insomnia. A 2013 article published in the Scientific American noted that people with TBIs should force themselves to remain awake for 24 hours immediately following a traumatic event. This is because sleep reinforces emotional memories. Staying up “disrupts the consolidation of trauma memories.” Outside of the 24 hours following trauma though, sleep is a key remedy for TBI.
When it comes to psychological injury, brain changes are also involved. Psychologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine John Cline, Ph.D., described how the brain chemistry changes following a traumatic event. The “fight-or-flight” responses are controlled by a part of the brain called the amygdala, which triggers the release of rousing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol while also reducing the production of serotonin, which makes us feel drowsy. The increase in adrenaline and cortisol and the decrease of serotonin have been commonly reported in people with PTSD from combat, abuse, and assault.
As a result, people with PTSD may be hyper-vigilant or hyper-aroused, and it affects their sleep cycle. The side effects of some medications used to treat PTSD can have the same result.
How Sleep Heals Trauma—and How to Get It
No matter how difficult it is to obtain, the reality is that people with trauma desperately need sleep in order to ease anxiety.
According to researchers at UC Berkeley, insomnia plays a role in ramping up brain regions that trigger excessive worry. Researchers at University of California Berkeley’s Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory found that when deprived of sleep, the brain reverts back to more primitive patterns of activity. Subjects kept awake were less likely to put emotionally-charged information in context, which is a key mechanism in alleviating the power of trauma.
Thankfully, the reverse is also true. Doing the opposite–finding ways to get better sleep–is a proven remedy for anxiety. “By restoring good quality sleep in people suffering from anxiety, we may be able to help ameliorate their excessive worry and disabling fearful expectations,” says Dr. Allison Harvey, one of the authors of the study published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
What can sufferers of trauma do to get more sleep? To the extent you can, practice the following elements of healthy sleep hygiene. You don’t have to do it all. Every little bit helps.
Go to bed and wake up at the same time, even on the weekends. If you cannot fall asleep within 30 minutes, get up and read a book or do something that is comforting to you and then return to bed to sleep after you feel more tired.
Establish a soothing bedtime routine. Examples: take a hot bath, use a lavender-scented moisturizer, read a book, and disconnect from social media–the blue light in electronic screens is notoriously rousing.
Refrain from caffeine several hours before bedtime.
Do not self-medicate with alcohol. It can help you get to sleep faster, but it can lead to sleep troubles in the long run. Some wine with dinner is okay.
If you have to nap during the day, limit it to 20 minutes.
Exercise during the day, but not a few hours before sleep (unless it’s strength straining, which promotes tiredness).
Make the bedroom an oasis of calm: Sleep in a cool, dark, clutter-free room. Limit your activities here to sleep and sex.
Sleep on a comfortable mattress that gives you enough support and does not make you hot.
Talk to your doctor about both behavioral therapy and medications to help treat your PTSD and sleep issues.
Sleeping after trauma is daunting: this much we know. But it is also true that improvements are possible if you follow just a few of these recommendations, to whatever degree you can. Test the solutions. Keep a sleep journal by your bedside. Find what works best for you. And sleep well.
Thank you Agnes
for sharing your tips on how to get a better night’s sleep.
What helps YOU sleep at night? Leave a comment and let us know!
And please don’t forget to add your links to Off-Fridays before it closes in a couple days!
Til next time.