Sleep Trouble: How Trauma Affects the Body

Trauma is a serious mental health condition that can affect almost every area of an individual’s life. This includes their emotions, social skills, work, school, and even their sleep. If you have experienced a traumatic event and are having sleep trouble, one of the best ways to overcome it is by addressing your post-traumatic stress disorder. Keep reading to learn more about sleep trouble, how trauma affects the body, and how you can start sleeping better.

What is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD, is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. This can include:

  • Death of a loved one
  • War
  • Serious injury
  • Car accident
  • Natural disaster
  • Emotional abuse
  • Sexual assault
  • Divorce or loss of close friendship
  • Being close to someone who has experienced a traumatic event
  • Witnessing a traumatic event

Symptoms of PTSD

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, to be diagnosed with PTSD, an adult must have all of the following for at least one month:

  • At least one re-experiencing symptom
  • At least one avoidance symptom
  • At least two arousal and reactivity symptoms
  • At least two cognition and mood symptoms

Re-experiencing symptoms include:

  • Flashbacks—reliving the trauma over and over, including physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating
  • Bad dreams
  • Frightening thoughts
  • Avoidance symptoms include:
  • Staying away from places, events, or objects that are reminders of the traumatic experience
  • Avoiding thoughts or feelings related to the traumatic event

Arousal and reactivity symptoms include:

  • Being easily startled
  • Feeling tense or “on edge”
  • Having difficulty sleeping
  • Having angry outbursts

Cognition and mood symptoms include:

  • Trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event
  • Negative thoughts about oneself or the world
  • Distorted feelings like guilt or blame
  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities

Risk Factors of PTSD

Anybody who experiences a traumatic event is susceptible to developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. However, there are risk factors that put specific individuals at a higher likelihood of developing it. These risk factors include:

  • Family history of PTSD. People who have family members that have PTSD are more likely to develop it themselves if they experience a traumatic event. In some cases, having a family member with PTSD may cause PTSD in another individual, especially children of people living with PTSD.
  • History of mental illness. People who suffer from anxiety or depression are at a greater risk of developing PTSD, and their existing mental health conditions will worsen as a result.
  • More than one traumatic experience. People who experience multiple deaths of loved ones, more than one car accident, or more than one of any type of trauma, are at a greater risk of developing PTSD.

How PTSD Is Treated

Treating PTSD can allow you to live a more normal, healthy life. Leaving it untreated can lead to extreme isolation, insomnia, paranoia, drug and alcohol abuse, or even suicide. Treatment for PTSD includes:

  • Group and individual counseling. One of the most important aspects of overcoming PTSD is talking about your thoughts and feelings. Being able to connect with your therapist, as well as a group of like-minded people, will help you be able to open up. The more you can open up, the better and more long-lasting your recovery will be, and the better your sleep trouble will get.
  • Trauma-Informed Care. Trauma-informed care is care in which mental healthcare providers engage with a client in a manner that allows for the implementation of an effective treatment process without retraumatization. Trauma-informed care requires understanding that the trauma people experience in the past can negatively impact their current life.
  • Medications. For many individuals, taking medication to help keep their anxiety and depression levels low is helpful with their PTSD and sleep trouble symptoms.

How Trauma Can Impact Sleep

According to the Sleep Foundation, there are many ways that trauma can cause sleep trouble. While sleep issues after a traumatic experience can be distressing, they may also be an important opportunity for treating and healing from trauma. Research suggests that sleeping after a traumatic event can reduce intrusive trauma-related memories and make them less distressing. Targeting sleep issues in the early treatment of trauma may reduce the risk of developing PTSD.

Ways trauma can impact sleep include:

  • Sleep Architecture. Trauma can change how the body moves through sleep cycles and stages. Although experts are still working to understand the implications of the changes observed in sleep architecture after trauma, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep appears to be the stage most affected. REM sleep is essential for storing memories and processing emotions, and dreams during REM sleep tend to be more fantastical and bizarre.
  • Distressing dreams and nightmares. These are common to trauma. Survivors often have dreams about the traumatic event that either directly replays the experience or contains trauma-related emotion, content, and symbols. Researchers hypothesize that trauma-related dreams are caused by the brain’s fear response combined with hyperarousal and may represent the mind’s attempt at integrating a traumatic experience.
  • Sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing starts and stops repeatedly. This leads to poor sleep quality and a host of other health problems. These can include low energy, weight gain, anxiety, and much more. Sleep apnea can worsen PTSD symptoms and create a vicious cycle that requires treatment to get out of.

Overcoming Sleep Trouble After Trauma

Insomnia and poor sleep quality don’t have to be part of your life. Getting a restful night’s sleep is possible for anybody with some work and practice. If you are experiencing sleep trouble after trauma, try some of these tricks to improve your sleep:

  • Work with a doctor. First and foremost, it is crucial that you seek treatment for your PTSD symptoms. PTSD is progressive, meaning it can get worse and worse over time. The sooner you can receive treatment for PTSD and learn the tools to manage it, the sooner you will be getting a more restful night’s sleep. You may also want to work with a doctor who can improve your sleep quality, such as Dr. Martin Gorman.
  • Start a routine. Routine is key for getting good, quality sleep so that your body knows what to expect. Pick a bedtime and wake-up time and stick to it. Even if you don’t fall asleep right away at first, you’re training your body for its new bedtime. Setting the alarm for a wake-up time, even on the weekends, will help get your body into a good rhythm.
  • Create a safe space. Suffering from PTSD leaves people feeling very unsafe, especially while sleeping. Creating a safe space to sleep can help alleviate some anxiety, such as installing an alarm system, putting a lock on your door, keeping a light on, or having someone stay with you. The safer you feel when you are at home in bed, the more likely you will have a restful night’s sleep. If you find this challenging to accomplish, make sure you let your doctor know.
  • Put away the electronics. This can be difficult to achieve in this day and age, but do your best to limit the use of electronics within 2 hours of your bedtime. Instead of your smartphone or a tablet, use a white noise machine or headphones with music to relax and unwind before bed.
  • Give it 20 minutes. If you find yourself tossing and turning and unable to go to sleep, wait 20 minutes. If you are still tossing and turning, get up and find something relaxing to do instead. Trying too hard to go to sleep can cause stress and anxiety, making it even more challenging to go to sleep. Instead, allow yourself that grace to read, listen to music, or get out of bed to do something calm and relaxing.
  • Exercise. Exercising during the day will naturally make our bodies tired. However, exercising too close to bed might make it too difficult to fall asleep due to the high levels of endorphins and adrenaline released during a workout. Exercise in the morning to take full advantage of these benefits.
  • Remind yourself that this is normal. Sleep trouble is a typical, common symptom of PTSD. While you are recovering from PTSD, experiencing worsened insomnia for a brief period is expected in some people while you’re learning treatment tools and uncovering the root causes for your trauma. If you are distressed over what little sleep you are getting, just remind yourself that these symptoms are normal and will pass soon.

About Gorman Health and Wellness

PTSD can cause sleep trouble, but fixing it is possible. If you suffer from sleep trouble due to PTSD and have developed sleep apnea, we can help. Martin N. Gorman, D.D.S. is a highly trained practitioner with over 40 years of experience in dentistry. He specializes in treating temporomandibular joint dysfunction (TMD), sleep disorders, and epigenetic orthodontics. He believes all of his patients should have an opportunity to achieve optimal dental health in a safe, caring, anxiety-free environment. He is committed to patient comfort.

Dr. Gorman is widely considered an authority on subjects of his expertise, both online and throughout the Dental and Sleep Health communities. A clear upward trend is developing in the public’s interest in the information he provides via the web on these commonly undiagnosed medical conditions with dental treatment solutions (Such as TMD and OSA).

“I have been helping people suffering from Sleep Apnea with a non-invasive, clinically approved treatment method. This method has allowed my patients to sleep with far fewer events per hour, allowing them to get rid of their CPAP and BiPAP machines. Imagine not having to use one of those machines, getting back a much greater quality of life along with the benefits of being able to breathe better.” – Dr. Gorman.

For more information on Dr. Gorman and to get started on your journey to better and more restful sleep, contact us today.

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