Restful sleep is an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can make getting a good night’s sleep a challenge, and PTSD symptoms can include difficulty falling and staying asleep.
Fortunately, if you are having PTSD sleep problems, you can do several things to cope. Understanding the relationship between PTSD and sleep, and what you can do to improve your sleep-related symptoms of PTSD, will help you manage living with this disorder.
Why Can’t I Fall Asleep?
If you have PTSD, you may find yourself lying awake in bed for hours on end, unable to sleep. Some reasons for this include:
- Biology: When your body is stressed, your brain is stimulated by neurochemicals such as epinephrine and adrenaline. These chemicals can also cause sleep disturbances.
- Drug and alcohol use: If you are using these substances, you may find it more difficult to fall asleep. Caffeine can alter your sleep patterns as well.
- Pain and medical issues: PTSD can cause chronic pain or digestive problems that keep you awake.
- Troublesome thoughts: Remembering your past trauma, or simply worrying about whether you’ll fall asleep, can make sleep elusive.
PTSD and Sleep: Why Do I Keep Waking Up at Night?
Trouble staying asleep is a common PTSD symptom. Possible reasons for your broken sleep include:
- Anxiety or panic attacks: Anxiety attacks related to past trauma may wake you with feelings such as dizziness, disorientation, sweating and a racing heart.
- Checking for safety: If you’ve experienced severe trauma, you may feel constantly alert. This can cause you to wake up at the slightest sound and frequently check that you and your family are safe.
- Nightmares and PTSD night terrors: Disturbing dreams, or shaking or screaming in your sleep, can wake you suddenly and disrupt your sleep quality.
- Thrashing movements: If you have hyper-arousal, you may move your arms and legs wildly during upsetting dreams, causing you to wake up.
Getting a Better Night’s Sleep with PTSD
If you’re having trouble sleeping because of PTSD, your doctor may be able to help. He may recommend therapy, medication or a combination of the two.
In addition to seeing your doctor, you can improve your sleep by:
- Avoiding alcohol and drugs, as they can disrupt your body’s sleep processes.
- Establishing a bedtime routine, such as listening to soothing music or taking a warm shower or bath before bed.
- Getting lots of exercise during the day and avoiding naps. However, avoid exercising in the hours before bedtime.
- Going to bed at the same time every night, and getting up at the same time every morning.
- Limiting caffeine intake.
- Taking your TV and radio out of your bedroom, and keeping the room dark, quiet and cool. Soothing music or white noise might help to block out noises.
- Using your bedroom only for sleep and sex.
If you are still having PTSD sleep problems, try to imagine yourself in peaceful, beautiful settings and picture each detail. If you still find yourself awake, get out of bed and work at a quiet, boring activity until you begin to feel sleepy.
Hamblen, J. and Swales, P. (2007). Sleep and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Retrieved July 10, 2010, from: http://ncptsd.va.gov/ncmain/ncdocs/fact_shts/fs_sleep.html.
Swales, P. (2010). Sleep and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Retrieved July 10, 2010, from: http://www.athealth.com/Consumer/disorders/sleepPTSD.html.