According to the American Psychology Association (APA), about 50% of all people will experience trauma. But we all respond to trauma differently. Many may recover over time, while others may experience long-lasting problems associated with the traumatic experience. One of those problems includes sleep issues.
For instance, one study found that children who have experienced abuse, neglect, or other houehold challenges may be at an increased risk of short sleep duration for up to 50 years later.
These sleep problems may start right after the traumatic event and contribute to the development of trauma associated-sleep disorders and trauma disorders like Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Acute Stress Disorders. These traumatic disorders may also exacerbate sleep problems and alter a person’s sleep health for the worse.
Trauma and sleep have a complex relationship. Let’s look at how trauma impacts sleep and potential ways to foster healthy sleep after experiencing a traumatic event or moment.
What Is Trauma?
Trauma is a negative and debilitating experience that alters a person’s physical, emotional, and mental state. This event may be one-time or recurring, and may manifest from physical, psychological, and/or sexual abuse.
Some traumatic events include accidents like a motor accident, drowning, plane crash, natural disasters like earthquakes, flooding, hurricanes, and violent behaviors like assault, gun violence, terrorist attacks, and murder.
A person may experience traumatic events directly by witnessing them first-hand or indirectly through another party’s recollection.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), responses to trauma may be immediate or delayed, brief or prolonged. People responding to trauma may show symptoms like
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Rumination about the event
- Difficulty sleeping
- Intense fear
However, consider seeing a healthcare professional if these symptoms are intense, persistent, and start to interrupt active participation in day-to-day activities.
How Does Trauma Impact Sleep?
- Fragmented sleep
- Increased midnight awakenings
- Difficulty falling and staying asleep
- Trouble falling back to sleep after midnight awakening
- Changes in sleep architecture (the structure of the sleep stages)
Trauma exposes the body to stress and triggers its stress response systems, which may explain how it affects sleep. When a person reacts to trauma, their body goes through different physiological changes.
They may experience an increase in heart rate and blood pressure, rapid breathing, and shortness of breath. The body may also produce steroid hormones, including cortisol, the stress hormone. This stress hormone increases alertness and limits the body’s ability to relax and wind down. It also can lengthen the amount of time it takes to fall asleep and impair sleep architecture. In addition, stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, the fight-or-flight response, which leads to hyperarousal. When the body is in this state, a person may experience difficulty winding down, falling asleep, or staying asleep.
After a traumatic event, people may experience vivid, distressing flashbacks of the event, known as intrusive memories, which may affect nighttime rest. A 2019 study suggests an association between intrusive memories occurring in the first week of a traumatic event and problems initiating and maintaining sleep.
Some research even suggests that the first few nights of a traumatic event may consolidate these memories, which may aggravate symptoms and play a role in developing a traumatic disorder.
However, findings of a 2020 study observed that sleep problems—sleeping too much or too little—after a traumatizing event was associated with more intrusive memories and early post-traumatic symptoms. REM sleep is especially critical for regulating our cognitive control of emotional reactivity and processing. In fact, some studies have even found that suppressing REM sleep limits our ability to regulate emotional experiences which may greatly impact our psychological well-being.
The researchers conclude by noting that the severity of a person’s intrusive memories and sleep problems may predict their likelihood of developing a mental disorder associated with the trauma.
Childhood trauma may show more extreme consequences on a person’s sleep health in the long term.
The previously mentioned 2019 study observed an association between adverse childhood experience and poor sleep duration in adults up to 50 years old. The study suggests that childhood trauma may increase the likelihood of chronic short sleep in adulthood.
Unfortunately, this form of trauma is prevalent. Research shows that over two-thirds of children reported at least a traumatic experience by 16.
Experts explain that poor sleep post-trauma may:
- Lower cognitive ability to manage trauma stress
- Increase hyperarousal
- Increase stressors
- Impair restorative sleep, which helps the body with healing and recovery
Trauma may also contribute to sleep problems described as trauma-associated sleep disorders (TSD). These TSDs are parasomnias like nightmares, disruptive nocturnal behaviors (like sleep talking and acting out dreams), and REM sleep without atonia.
Ideas to Foster Healthy Sleep After a Traumatic Event
Trauma can be draining and paralyzing. You may struggle with being your usual self and engaging in normal daily activities. You may also have difficulty falling and staying asleep. With the help of a healthcare professional, you may be able to improve your sleep quality.
In the meantime, here are four practices you can try to support your sleep quality if you’re coping with trauma:
- Try mindfulness exercises before bedtime
Practices like deep breathing, meditation, journaling, and light yoga, may help release tension from your body so you can relax and fall asleep.
- Follow a bedtime ritual
You can include wind-down activities such as taking a warm bath and changing to comfy pajamas, listening to sleep noise, and aromatherapy before bedtime in your bedtime routine, which may keep you grounded and prepare your body for refreshing sleep.
- Practice sleep hygiene
Sleep hygiene includes recommendations that influence your sleep habit and improve sleep quality. They involve keeping your bedroom cool and quiet, limiting alcohol, heavy food intake, and caffeine in the evening time, exercising during the day, and following a regular sleep-wake time. These habits may hold up your sleep health even during distressing times.
- Prioritize rest
Try not to put yourself under pressure to return to work mode after a traumatizing experience. If the body signals you to rest or engage in self-care activities, follow these cues.
Prioritize doing healthy things that make you feel good to help you recover from these traumatic experiences. Resist rushing recovery. And seek out support from friends and family.
Exercise can help you cope with trauma and protect your sleep health. A 2019 study suggests that cardio exercises positively affect mental health and may help manage PTSD symptoms.
You can participate in simple physical activities like walking, yoga, dancing, or jogging daily.
- Seek support from loved ones
Your loved ones can help you go through distressing times. If you can, reach out to family and friends and share how you’re feeling with them. Talking about your emotions with someone might help you feel lighter and less overwhelmed.
Plus, your loved ones can also help relieve you of responsibilities you might not be able to take on during this period.
Journaling can help you express your feelings and emotions, which is vital for recovery. Engage in digital or handwritten journaling to help process and organize your thoughts, manage feelings of overwhelm, and reduce stress levels.
A 2018 study suggests that expressive writing can help you manage traumatic symptoms, improve mood, lower blood pressure, support immune function, improve emotional wellbeing, and provide positive physical and mental health outcomes. The researchers recommend that expressive writing can be a therapeutic tool for people experiencing trauma.
Whatever you’re going through, we want to help you find healthy sleep that supports your recovery for lasting mental and emotional well-being.