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The Link Between PTSD and Sleep

close up of man rubbing his tired eyes behind his glasses

Written by Angela Powell, MA, LPC

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can impact any and all areas of life, making it hard to feel safe, interact with others, concentrate and sleep. Sleep is vital to our bodies ability to function and when our sleep is disrupted by nightmares, panic attacks, sleep paralysis, night terrors, insomnia, anxiety and other disruptions it can make it increasingly difficult to interact with others, be productive at work, home and to have a personal life. When a person has been through a trauma their mind can attempt to process these traumas when sleeping, which can result in nightmares, sleep paralysis, night terrors and other sleep disorders.

Common Effects of Insomnia and Poor Sleep:

  • Mood and motivational changes
  • Increased risk taking
  • Decreased threat detection
  • Impaired attention/concentration
  • Memory loss for recent events
  • Variable and slowed responses
  • Illusions/hallucinations
  • Failure of routines/impaired task performance
  • Exaggerated feeling of physical exertion
  • Lack of insight to impairment
  • Failed verbal communication 
  • Social discomfort
  • Increased health problems

Many of these common effects are also symptoms of depression, PTSD, anxiety and other disorders. This means that how well you are sleeping can impact your ability to function with these disorders and can exacerbate how these disorders impact you.

How Does Sleep Work?

Sleep occurs in 5 different stages. The first stage is when you are in a state of falling asleep which last for approximately 15 minutes. The second stage is when you are sleeping and in a state of rest. Stages three and four include your body being able to adequately recover. When in these stages the main function of sleep is to allow your body to physically restore. Without physical restoration, we will not be able to recover, heal and physically function. During this stage your body is very active, and your mind is quiet. In the fifth stage, Rapid Eye Movement sleep (REM) occurs. This is when your mind is trying to heal, and your body is in a state of calm. These 5 stages occur in order and to adequately rest and recover your mind and body need about 5 to 6 of these cycles per night, which equals approximately 8 hours.

So Why are Sleep Problems So Common?

When you go through trauma and have PTSD, your may generally be in a constant state of alertness, have difficulty letting down your guard, feeling safe and have recurring thoughts or fears which may keep you from being able to get to a restful place. This with everyday life stressors like upcoming meetings, vacations, travel for work, increased family stress, grief and loss, and even shift work can make it more difficulty to establish a healthy routine that promotes quality sleep.

The Facts:

  • 9 to 15 % of Americans experience insomnia
  • 25 to 30% of service members report insomnia post-deployment
  • 2- to 40% of people in primary care settings experience insomnia
  • Some studies show promise for the use of melatonin in shortening the time it takes to fall asleep and reducing the number of awakenings, but not necessarily total sleep time. Other studies show no benefit at all with melatonin.
  • One of the primary causes of excessive sleepiness among Americans is self-imposed sleep deprivation.
  • According to the results of NSF’s 2008 Sleep in America poll, 36 percent of American drive drowsy or fall asleep while driving.
  • According to the results of NSF’s 2008 Sleep in America poll, a surprising 34 percent of respondents reported their employer allows them to nap during breaks and 16 percent provide a place to do so.
  • People who don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have bigger appetites due to the fact that their leptin levels (leptin is an appetite-regulating hormone) fall, promoting appetite increase.

PTSD doesn’t just go away, avoidance of the problems you are experiencing can just make things worse, including your ability to sleep. Allow yourself the opportunity to look at why these issues are occurring and get help. There are people who specialize in sleep disorders, trauma, depression, anxiety and other’s factors that impact your daily functioning. Just reach out for a chance to improve your life.