It is estimated that one in eleven people will be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder sometime in their lifetime. Whether a traumatic event was experienced recently, or even decades ago, the effects linger on in the minds of PTSD sufferers. For those impacted by trauma, the upsetting visual images and event flashbacks can worsen in sleep—a time where we can’t control thoughts or stimuli. In order to bring back the peace and restoration sleep is intended for; we need to understand the symptoms of PTSD as well as how strategic sleep can alleviate them.
PTSD Symptoms and Sleep
According to the Mayo Clinic, PTSD symptoms can include recurrent and intrusive memories, avoidance of places or things tied to trauma, negative changes in thinking or mood, and changes in physical or emotional reactions. While the intensity of these symptoms varies by person and situation, the overarching problem is a lack of feeling safe in daily situations. So, what happens when bedtime and the opportunity for respite from the outside world bring insomnia and/or intense and disruptive dreams?
For PTSD patients especially, a lack of quality sleep can make their symptoms worse.
And because PTSD is already associated with increased disruptions during sleep, many people find themselves trapped in a cycle of sleeplessness. Not only does this rob the body’s opportunity to rest and repair, but it also hinders chemical processes that those with PTSD need most. One of the most impacted processes is the body’s growth hormone production—a huge contributor to body and brain function.
Particularly in veterans who experienced combat-related PTSD, research is now finding their lower GH production leads to impaired memory consolidation. This isn’t completely unique to veterans as we know that memory consolidation is a massive part of slow-wave sleep, however, veterans’ studies are completed on a more consistent basis and are therefore easier to find and track trends. This important for anyone struggling with PTSD as the broader implication on memory-loss and memory consolidation disruption is alarming.
Prioritizing Deep (Slow-Wave) Sleep
Slow-wave sleep or the deepest phase of Non-REM sleep is a staple in quality sleep. Our brain waves are determined by our thoughts and feelings, and during this phase of sleep slow brain waves or “delta activity” are most prominent. These waves represent a deep, meditative state that is considered the deepest phase of sleep. The job of delta activity is to “suspend external awareness” and allows the stimulation of regeneration in the body. “That is why deep restorative sleep is so essential to the healing process,” according to the Brainworks Neurotherapy Clinic.
It’s easy to feel the effects of deep sleep or lack thereof. We feel sluggish, struggle to work as efficiently, and often act irritable. But for PTSD sufferers, achieving sleep, specifically deep sleep is imperative to allow the brain to process difficult memories. Not only will slow-wave sleep help brain function but it also “induces the secretion of growth hormone release in the hypothalamus”, a specific concern for PTSD sufferers. Recent studies show that growth hormone is significantly lower in PTSD sufferers than the average person. Improving these growth hormone levels will lead to better amino acid uptake, protein synthesis, metabolism function and provides neuroprotection and increased neurogenesis (stem cell production) for those that need it most.
Your Sleep Recipe
Once we start to understand the importance and benefits of deep sleep, it’s often hard to know where to begin making changes. Especially for those with overwhelming PTSD, the thought of adding tasks to a full mental load seems daunting. The best, first step is always just to begin. Don’t feel like you need to make multiple changes in one day.
Look at your current schedule and find ways to remove variables that could contribute to poor sleep habits. For example, consuming alcohol, raising your heart rate close to bedtime, or anything that raises your core body temperature are recipes for disruptive sleep. Your body is relying on your habits to trigger and accommodate its natural need to sleep when it is cool, dark, and safe. If you focus on these three aspects alone, you’re already on the right track.
Dimming the lights and building a cozy environment can be done fairly quickly, but ensuring your core body temperature is lowered takes some navigating. While many of us feel inclined to simply lower the A/C, this isn't enough to actually alter our body temperature. Alternative, faster-acting solutions include: taking a warm bath which then leads to a body temperature drop after or utilizing a cooling solution directly under your bedsheets. At chili, we specialize in lowering core body temperature. We encourage you to compare different bed cooling system options to see what works best for you. These small steps will lead you to more restful sleep and aid in restoring precious brain connections and optimal performance.
Finding Hope, and Sleep After Trauma
For trauma survivors, the world becomes a different, less safe space. Each day presents unique challenges and opportunities for triggers that many could never understand. Sleeplessness on top of an already chaotic mindset only adds to this stress. While science is still only scratching the surface of how to help those with PTSD, there is hope in knowing there are tools like temperature-controlled weighted blankets and mattress toppers to promote better sleep, and a better quality of life.
Trauma continues to be a part of so many lives. It leaves scars in the heart and mind that make self-care even more challenging. But by protecting your mind and body; building a safe space that you can revisit whenever the world seems like too much, you will feel better prepared for each new challenge. If this safe space in your bedroom, remember to keep it cool, dark, and safe so your parasympathetic nervous system knows you are protected. By building this safe, sacred space, you can take back your sleep and then begin to tackle even more areas of daily life.
Create a safe space. Protect your body and mind. Prioritize a steady sleep schedule. Then, you can continue working on other self-care habits that will only deepen the relationship with your body and mind that PTSD so often works to destroy.
If you are struggling with deep trauma, you are not alone.
For information and help coping with PTSD, please consult the following resources:
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI): (800) 950-NAMI (6264). Available Monday through Friday between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. EST, hotline staff are prepared to answer any mental health questions you may have. If you prefer, you can also text NAMI to 741741 for free support.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): (800) 662-HELP (4357). Available 24/7, 365 days a year, the professionals on the phone can provide treatment information and referrals in English and Spanish to people who have questions about mental health or substance abuse disorders.
- gov: (877) 726‑4727. This hotline is available between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. EST to provide mental health information and treatment referrals.
- National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): 1-866-615-6464(toll-free), 1-301-443-8431 (TTY), or 1-866-415-8051 (TTY toll-free). Available between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. EST, professionals can answer any mental health-related question in English or Spanish and attend to requests for copies of NIMH brochures.