Trauma can cause all kinds of sleep disturbances, from nightmares so scary they are classified as night terrors through to insomnia. A good night’s sleep is biologically necessary and a vital component to our overall wellbeing if we wish to recover.
The Importance of Sleep States
Being awake and being asleep are not as diametrically opposed as one may think. Scientists measure the difference through the frequency and amplitude of brain waves analyzed through an EEG. The measurements show we go from wakefulness to various depths of relaxation as we sleep. When you get sleepy, your brain creates alpha waves which move towards theta waves as you relax more and fall asleep. Those who are shaken awake during the theta stage will not believe you if you say they were asleep. In fact, through meditation the aim is to move towards theta state.
During deeper sleep, the type where it is hard to wake someone up, the brain emits delta waves, noted by their high amplitude. Those who are shaken awake in this state will feel unrefreshed no matter how long they actually slept.
Yet during REM sleep, the state that comes after the deepest sleep, brain waves are similar to those of a fully awake brain and eyeballs move behind closed eyelids quickly despite the relaxed muscles of the sleeping person—who is likely dreaming.
Scientists say that loss of REM is the least harmful and even that sleep deprivation during REM can improve symptoms of major depression. Some effective antidepressants actually reduce REM sleep. However, this is still challenged as we do not yet fully understand the function of sleep.
Trauma and Sleep
A person who has been through trauma may have trouble falling asleep, as they cannot get into the relaxed phase necessary for it. They may startle easily so that they do not experience the deep sleep that leaves us refreshed.
To improve your chances of a good sleep, experts suggest the following:
- Do not eat close to bedtime. A full stomach makes sleep more difficult.
- Create calmness before bed by avoid screens, as their form of light interferes with sleep as do the energizing actions on TV shows. Avoid difficult discussions or talking about your trauma before bed. Turn to reading instead.
- Your environment is key to getting good sleep. Create a soothing bedroom. The room you choose to sleep in should be quiet, cool, and dark. If the dark increases anxious thoughts, leave a nightlight on.
- Go to bed at a regular time. Habits help. If your body learns that at a specific time it should start winding down for sleep, a nice routine that includes a hot bath, music, and dim lights will help you slip into a sleepy state.
- If your body feels tired, go to bed. Try not to fight the sleepy feeling.
And be nice to yourself. Here are a few bed-time self-care practices that may help you get those all-important zzzs:
- A nice hot bath
- Essential oils such as lavender, chamomile, sweet marjoram, bergamot or sandalwood (plus some of the delightful combinations of these that are available)
- Soothing music or other sounds, such as rain, the waves on a beach
- Meditation and prayer
- Yoga nidra or sleeping yoga equates to 4 hours of deep rest.
Find music and meditations designed to help you sleep, try different things and decide what works for you.