Sleep, Trauma, and the Brain

sleep-and-brain-function-1024x530Trauma and Sleep

Article written by: Macie Stead MS, LMHC

Sleep is an often-underappreciated event by those who can do it well. Those who struggle with sleep problems- waking up too early, difficulties falling asleep, or intermittent sleep during the night- understand all too well how devastating lack of quality sleep can be. Now, consider someone who has experienced a traumatic event, their brain and body is out of sync with difficulties finding a cohesive rhythm. Imagine a dance partner who continues to step on your toes and has serious problems keeping up with the beat. Sleep is all about rhythm, the circadian rhythm to be exact.

Circadian rhythm is the biological process of physical mental, and behavioral changes that follow a roughly 24-hour cycle that responds to light and darkness (National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), 2012). The circadian rhythm can impact sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, and body temperature; a malfunctioning rhythm can develop into sleep disorders and have been associated with obesity, depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder (NIGMS, 2012).

According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) (2017) someone who has experienced trauma gets an increased boost of epinephrine and adrenaline which can negatively impact a normal sleep cycle. According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) (2017) common sleep problems after trauma can include: flashbacks, frightening thoughts, high levels of alertness, fear of nighttime and darkness, and nightmares. Sometimes people will turn to drugs or alcohol to numb themselves mentally and physically; however, drugs and alcohol are proven to impact the healing process and make sleep problems worse.

What are some options for sleep problems if you have experienced a traumatic event?

  • Don’t watch the news before bed
  • Take a warm bath
  • Do not eat or drink before bed
  • Sleep somewhere you feel safe: make it calm, quiet, cool, and comfortable
  • Try to relax and do something soothing before bed
  • Avoid coffee and caffeine in the afternoon
  • Napping can interrupt your sleep cycle, do so sparingly, but rest when you need to between 15-45 minutes, and not too late in the day
  • Avoid activities that are high in physical or mental energy; avoid talking about trauma experiences before bed.
  • Seek professional counseling to address symptoms of the trauma
  • If symptoms persist, there are medications that can be prescribed that can aid in sleep without making you feel groggy the next morning.

Sleep tips and information were created by Witness Justice, in partnership with the National Sleep Foundation, Dr. Barry Krakow of The Sleep and Human Health Institute and Dr. Gregory Belenky of the physician and a leading sleep researcher of the Walter Reed Institute of Research.