Trauma and Sleep

Traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort. Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs.” ― Bessel A. van der Kolk

If you have experienced a trauma of some kind, your brain will now be programmed to expect danger or threat. So, even in the night, it will remain on high alert. It does this on its own, outside of conscious awareness.

In summary:

1. The brain will start to release a cascade of hormones. This disturbs our sleep, and usually wakens us up, as it prepares to set in motion the fight/ flight/ freeze response. This happens even when the risk or the danger has passed.

2. Trauma disturbs our normal sleep architecture. This means it interferes with the way we move through the different sleep cycles. REM sleep is the stage which is affected most. This is where we integrate and process our experiences.

3. Many trauma sufferers will experience night-terrors. These occur when we are in the REM part of the sleep cycle. Often, night-terrors will vividly replay part of the trauma, or they may contain images, symbols, or feelings related to the trauma.

4. Although this is disturbing, upsetting and distressing, it is believed to be the brain’s attempt at healing from the trauma.

What can we do about disturbed sleep patterns?

1. Firstly, it’s important to have realistic expectations related to sleep, after you’ve experienced a trauma of some kind. Your body and your brain are only trying to protect you. They don’t want you to sleep – because that makes you vulnerable.

2. No-one wants to waken when they’ve just fallen sleep, or struggle with insomnia, or experience night terrors. So show yourself compassion, and be kind to yourself.

3. Try your best to maintain some kind of regular sleep schedule so your brain comes to expect set, certain periods of “down time.” This will help prepare your body, so it’s able to relax.

4. If this doesn’t work, then just allow yourself to sleep whenever you feel tired, or whenever you can nap. Take the pressure off yourself; you cannot force yourself to sleep.

5. Sleep where you feel safe, or are prepared to deal with threat. For some, this might mean sleeping in a different room … or maybe having somebody they trust nearby … or having ready access to a clear means of escape. Whatever it takes, you need to carve out a safe space. You need to feel you’re able to protect yourself.

6. Learn how to de-stress when you are wakened in the night. For example, some people practice deep breathing exercises, some people choose to get up and change rooms, others seek comfort and support in a safe person. It’s important to experiment, and find what works for you.

7. If you keep tossing and turning, then get up and move around. Find something that’s distracting, or that helps you to feel calm. Eventually, you’ll start to feel relaxed and tired again.  You can’t speed up this process; you just have to wait it out.

Even the darkest night will end, and the sun will rise again.”

32 thoughts on “Trauma and Sleep

  1. Trauma in the early stages played havoc with my sleep

    Mine was emotionally charged nightmares

    I thought I killed someone in my sleep

    Had to ask my wife what was reality

    I would wake up drenched like I just dove into a swimming pool

    I would be exhausted in the morning

    No way to fix sleep while asleep

    I had to unplug and improve in waking hours

    I sleep sound now

    I still have ptsd during waking hours

    Liked by 4 people

  2. This is so true. My growing up years was filled with the trauma from a father who was a drunk. My two brothers and mother lived our lives in fear every night of when he would come home drunk. so my insomnia started very early in life and is still with me today. If my husband and I are fighting it’s worst or if my kids are struggling it is worst. I have been told by a pain doctor I have a form of PDST from my childhood. All I know for sure is, i cannot usually just go to be and go to sleep. I usually only get 4-5 hours of sleep and at least once a week pull an all nightery. I have tried many different meds, some help a little, most do not help at all. It’s a mental thing, not a physical thing but it affect me physically on a daily bases. This is a good post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I really feel for you. I have a similar sleep pattern so know how disabling it is 😦
      From what you say here, it definitely sounds as if trauma from the past is affecting you in the present. I hope you are able to find some strategies that help – even if it only helps a little. It’s really hard to cope with the stresses of life on such a small amount of sleep.


  3. This is a very good breakdown of trauma and sleep and good encouragement. I often struggle with sleep but what you say makes a lot of sense. Maybe not trying to force it is the best solution for now. I can relate to the comment above as well about needing to see a door at all times. I need that too. I have so much anxiety if I cannot see or plan a route or escape if I need to. Thank you for sharing this.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I appreciate this discussion so much. As my mother works through her trauma, she has been experiencing sleepless nights when certain dark memories come crashing back in. One of her strengths is her willingness to talk about these difficult nights.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. This all rings so true.. I stopped worrying about not sleeping and waking several times a night.. I get spun around a lot at night and its not controllable at all but it can be manageable.. lately I try to go to bed at the same time and that seems to help me a little and not stressing out about sleeping is so so important.

    Liked by 2 people

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