“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.
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.”