PTSD and Sleep

PTSD and Sleep

A terrifying recurrent dream, drenched in sweat, heart beating fast. Waking up and often being unable to fall asleep again that night. These are the most common disturbances to sleep that someone with PTSD can suffer from. Unfortunately, it’s incredibly common for people with PTSD to experience some type of problem sleeping, whether they’re young or old, men or women. Some have suffered trauma on the battlefield, others at home. PTSD and sleep rarely go hand in hand but finding out more about PTSD and sleep disorders can help you get a good night’s sleep.

What is PTSD?

Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening, or distressing events. Someone with PTSD often relives the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks. They may experience feelings of isolation, irritability, and guilt. A main result of PTSD is sleeping problems, such as insomnia, and they can also find concentrating difficult. These symptoms are often severe and persistent to the point that they significantly affect the person’s day-to-day life.1

Any situation that a person finds traumatic can cause PTSD. These can include:

  • Serious road accidents
  • Violent assaults (sexual, mugging, or robbery)
  • Serious health problems
  • Childbirth
  • Being bullied
  • Seeing other people being hurt or killed
  • Extreme violence or war (including military combat)
  • Surviving a natural disaster
  • Losing a loved one

PTSD can develop immediately after the disturbing event, or it can occur weeks, months, or even years later. It’s estimated to affect about 1 in every 3 people who have had a traumatic experience, but it’s not yet known why some people develop the condition while others don’t.2

PTSD and Sleep Disorders

When someone re-experiences traumatic events and flashbacks while they’re sleeping, these nightmares can be accompanied by real physical reactions to feelings of fear. This can be a pounding heart or sweating. The nightmare can occur at random, or might be triggered by sights, sounds, or smells that may remind the person of the trauma. Therefore, someone with PTSD often tries to avoid objects, places, events, or even emotions that could trigger memories of the traumatic event.

People with PTSD may show symptoms of insomnia, such as frequently waking up during the night and having difficultly getting back to sleep. They may also wake up earlier than they intended. You can read more about insomnia here.

However, even if sleep is not disrupted, it may not be a good sleep, as there could be a lot of movement or talking and yelling during their sleep.

People with PTSD can also experience hyperarousal. This can mean that they’re constantly on guard, is tense, and is on edge. This’ll interfere with their ability to fall asleep and stay asleep. Someone with hyperarousal could be more sensitive to sounds while sleeping and, as a result, be more likely to wake up – even if it’s a minor sound.

People with PTSD can even develop sleep apnoea, but researchers are unsure as to why. Sleep apnoea is a serious sleep disorder that occurs when a person’s breathing is interrupted during sleep. If left untreated, sleep apnoea can result in the person’s breathing stopping repeatedly during their sleep. As a result, the brain and body may not be getting enough oxygen. When someone stops breathing like this, they will wake up. For someone with PTSD, they can lead to the risk of not being able to get back to sleep as their thoughts may start to race. However, sleep apnoea is a common and treatable condition. You can read more about it here.

How Can You Get A Better Sleep?

Stick to a schedule. Sleep problems can be avoided by exercising during the day – however, make sure to avoid exercise four hours before your bedtime. If you exercise too close to your bedtime, you could find that you’re kept awake late at night. It’s also important to keep to a regular sleep schedule, so you’re used to going to bed at the same time every night.

Watch what you eat and drink. Avoid eating heavy meals before going to bed, but make sure that you don’t go to bed hungry. Both of these can disrupt your sleep schedule. Also, reduce the amount of caffeine and nicotine that you consume during the day. Avoid drinking caffeine after lunch time and, if you’re a smoker, don’t smoke before going to bed. Plus, it’s a good idea to avoid consuming alcohol within six hours of your bedtime. Although alcohol can make you feel sleepy, it’ll keep you from getting a deep sleep, and it’ll also make you wake up much earlier than you need to be awake.

Avoid or limit naps during the day, especially after 3 p.m.

Don’t force yourself to sleep. This will never work. If you’re still awake 20 or 30 minutes after getting in bed, get up and try to do something relaxing. This can be reading a book or having a glass of water or milk. If you stay in bed when you’re wide awake, your brain will come to associate your bed with restlessness. Therefore, it’s best that you go to bed when you feel drowsy.

Have a relaxing bedroom. It’s important that your bedroom is associated with sleep, so limiting what you do in your bedroom helps this. For example, don’t eat, watch TV, check emails, or talk on the phone while in bed.

Have a healthy sleeping environment. Keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool. Use a white noise machine, ear plugs, or an eye mask to help block out any distracting noises or light.

Try to relax. Practice relaxation exercises before going to bed to release muscle tension and slow down your breathing. Practising mindfulness can also help you to separate your worries from yourself. Read more about being mindful and its benefits here.

Consider a weighted blanket. The extra weight offered by these blankets can create a sense of security, and they may help calm or comfort restless or stressed individuals. You can browse our selection of weighted blankets here – it’s recommended that you choose one that’s about 10% of your overall weight.

The best way someone with PTSD can help themselves get a good night’s sleep is to talk to their doctor. PTSD can be successfully treated, even for PTSD that’s developed years after the traumatic event. Doctors can help them determine if there has already been a sleep disorder before the traumatic event, and they can also refer them to a mental health specialist to ensure that they get the best care.

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