PTSD and Sleep

After a traumatic event, it can be difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. The cycle of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) includes:

  • Initial trauma: this includes the mental and physical distress which precipitates PTSD
  • Intrusion: unwanted thoughts and images invade your mind
  • Arousal: your body and mind are on alert and you feel overwhelming anxiety
  • Avoidance: poor coping mechanisms

PTSD and Sleep Disorders

PTSD can bring about intense anxiety and lead to sleep problems. PTSD occurs after an event such as witnessing or experiencing something violent including rape, combat, or experiencing a natural disaster. This can result in a feeling of helplessness or loss of control.

PTSD overstimulates the body as the brain floods with neurochemicals, such as epinephrine and adrenaline, which, in turn, keep you awake. This makes it difficult to wind down and can eventually disrupt your regular sleep cycle. All of these problems can result in nightmares, insomnia, and excessive daytime sleepiness brought on by sleep disturbances.

The sleep problems which are common following a traumatic event include:

  • Upsetting thoughts or flashbacks hindering the onset of sleep.
  • Feeling the need to be extremely watchful or “on the lookout,” making sleep difficult.
  • Nighttime or darkness can bring about added anxiety or restlessness for those who have been through violent situations.
  • Daytime napping may be helpful in getting some extra rest, but it can also interfere with efforts to sleep at nighttime.
  • Nightmares can awaken a survivor and make getting back to sleep a challenge.
  • Some survivors abuse alcohol or drugs to attempt to numb their feelings or emotional pain after experiencing something traumatic. By drinking or taking illicit substances, the healing process is negatively affected and sleep problems are worsened.

Coping with PTSD and Sleep Disorders

Insomnia, bad dreams and excessive daytime sleepiness can be treated in a number of ways. Sleep specialists recommend trying to minimize negative feelings such as stress and anxiety before bedtime. This can be achieved by not watching the news before going to sleep or avoiding caffeine in the hours before bedtime. Taking a hot bath or reading a book can also help.

If sleep problems don’t subside, make sure to discuss your symptoms with a doctor or sleep specialist. They may prescribe sleep aid medications that can help you get the rest you need.

There are a number of methods you can undertake to alleviate the symptoms of PTSD and associated sleep disorders:

  • Sleep somewhere you will feel safe. If your bedroom isn’t the right location due to bad memories, experiencing something traumatic in that setting, or simply the fear of being alone, find a place with a loved one and sleep there until you feel comfortable.
  • Create an optimal sleep environment. This should be a safe, quiet, cool and comfortable room which is dark enough so you can sleep. A nightlight can also help if it allows you feel safer. Sometimes it also helps to sleep with a friend or family member near you.
  • Have a relaxing bedtime routine. Reading or listening to music can help you get in “sleep mode.” Avoid other activities which may be mentally or physically stimulating, such as talking about the trauma you experienced.
  • Avoid eating or drinking before bedtime. Alcohol is especially discouraged as it can disrupt your sleep as it is being metabolized.
  • Rest whenever you feel tired. After experiencing a traumatic event, it’s common to feel exhausted and overwhelmed. You may need more time to rest during this time. If sleeping through the night is difficult, try to take naps throughout the day.
  • Go to bed when you’re ready. If you try to force yourself to sleep, you can feel even more pressure. It may be harmful to lie in bed awake for extended periods of time.

If you think you have PTSD, it is important to speak to your physician and get help. A psychotherapist can help you regain a feeling of safety through cognitive behavioral therapy. If you still feel overwhelmed, it may be advisable to start a medication regimen as prescribed by a physician.

For more information about PTSD and its relation to sleep disorders, please call The Los Angeles Sleep Study Institute at 1-855-690-0563 and one of our representatives will be happy to address any comments, questions, or concerns you may have.