When you have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), you may have trouble falling asleep due to problems like anxiety, racing thoughts, flashbacks and nightmares, according to the National Sleep Foundation.
PTSD is a psychiatric condition that can occur in people who have witnessed or experienced a traumatic event. It was called “Shell Shock" during World War I but it doesn't just happen to veterans, it can be the result of any personal trauma, natural disaster, terrorist act, accident, crime or serious injury or violence.
The American Psychiatric Association says one in eleven people will be diagnosed with PTSD in their lifetimes, and women may be twice as vulnerable as men. Sufferers can have intense and disturbing thoughts about their experience accompanied by feelings of sadness, anger, fear, flashbacks and nightmares. Unfortunately, poor sleep may go hand-in-hand with PTSD.
Sufferers may also develop a fear about falling asleep, becoming apprehensive to go to bed at all because of nightmares. But missing out on restful sleep night after night further can take a toll on mental and physical well-being.
Chronic lack of sleep may result in poor cognitive function, lowered immunity, depression, and a predisposition to develop health problems like diabetes, dementia, high blood pressure and weight gain.
PTSD And your Sleep
Some reasons PTSD and poor sleep go hand in hand include sufferers have an increased awareness or hyper-vigilance about anything reminiscent of the traumatic event. If you've ever experienced something like a robbery, an emergency health situation or a natural disaster like a fire or flood, you can relate to the fact that you may be apt to keep remembering, reliving or replaying the scene in your head, especially when you lie down to sleep.
Hyper-arousal symptoms include constantly scanning your environment for signs of danger, increased heart rate, fast-paced breathing, and physical tension, as well as feeling jumpy or easily startled.
Another reason is that nightmares and intrusive thoughts are very common among those with PTSD.
Speaking to a physician is critical to creating a treatment plan. There are several well-validated psychological treatments for PTSD that reduce severity and can help eliminate symptoms so you can sleep:
- Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT). Helps challenge and modify unhelpful beliefs about the trauma.
- Prolonged Exposure Therapy (PE). Uses exposure of trauma-related memories as an intervention to confront fears.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Uses small doses of emotionally disturbing material while focusing on external stimulus to relieve distress.
Sleeping Easier with PTSD
There are also many sleep hygiene-related practices that those with PTSD can try:
- Limit screen time and leave your phone outside the bedroom to prevent midnight scrolling and watching the clock.
- Create a pre-bedtime routine that will help your body and brain know it's time to sleep soon. This can include dimming lights, listening to soothing music, or taking a warm bath. The important part is that you are consistent so that your brain begins to associate the routine with sleep.
- Limit caffeine and alcohol consumption after 2 p.m.
- Try to not eat heavy meals right before bed.
- Keep a safe item by your nightstand, for example, a picture of a loved one, or favorite tchotchke or good luck charm, a calming object that you can hold and use to ground yourself.
- If you do have a nightmare, sit up or stand and place your feet firmly on the ground. If you can't go back to sleep right away, try writing about it. It's been shown to reduce anxiety and reframe or even change the nightmare's course.
- Learn meditation. Studies prove that the more you meditate, the more grey matter is formed in the brain and the more the amygdala shrinks. The amygdala is part of the fight/flight response so you're literally reducing its ability to respond.
- Pay extra attention to a healthy diet, exercise, relaxation techniques that work for you and mind-body practices like acupuncture, yoga and gratitude journaling.
PTSD is a complicated issue. Improving sleep can help those suffering with it reduce the toll on their mental and physical wellbeing.