What makes sleep so vital for everyone, but especially for trauma survivors, is that it helps the body process and rejuvenate.
“Sleep is essential, especially good quality sleep,” Alex Dimitriu1, M.D., founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine, tells SELF. “During sleep, we process and pack away memories, as well as emotions. If trauma or anxiety is disturbing sleep, it is essential to get help.”
Trauma can affect sleep in a number of ways. When you experience trauma, your body releases a flood of stress hormones including cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, which heighten the body’s sympathetic nervous system into a state of fight, flight, or freeze. This includes increased heart rate, breathing, and heightened senses2.
“Ideally, once the threat has passed the body returns to its functional baseline,” Shena Young3, Psy.D, a licensed body-centered and holistic psychologist and Founder of Embodied Truth Healing & Psychological Services, tells SELF. “However, with trauma, the impact can be enduring with cortisol levels remaining elevated and the nervous system being stuck in overdrive,” explains Dr. Young, who is also a certified yoga teacher.
This state of hyperarousal makes it difficult for survivors of trauma to rest and stay connected to their bodies, which may continue to be triggered long after the threat has passed. It also puts them at a higher risk for developing issues like anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and sleep disturbances.
These sleep disturbances can look like a handful of things, including recurring nightmares, intrusive thoughts, insomnia, panic attacks, flashbacks, or REM (rapid eye movement) sleep behavior disorder, which happens when a person acts out the content of their dreams4.
When you’ve become afraid of your own REM cycle, how do you even begin the process of healing your relationship with sleep? It’s tricky. Here are other steps I took during my waking hours that ultimately began to change the tide.
1. Learn more about your body’s current responses and reactions.
As the old saying goes, knowledge is power, especially when it comes to learning more about your own body. “If resting and sleeping are difficult for you, please know you’re not alone,” Zahabiyah Yamasaki5, M.Ed, founder and executive director of Transcending Sexual Trauma Through Yoga and soon-to-be-published author, tells SELF. “Healing from trauma can be a lifelong process. The impact of trauma can linger in the body long after an assault has occurred,” adds Yamasaki, who is also a registered yoga teacher. “Survivors may struggle with sleep because for so many, it doesn’t feel safe. Sometimes having the psychoeducation around our experiences and understanding the neurobiology of trauma can be incredibly affirming.”
For me, learning all of the above about what my body was experiencing and being able to name it was the ball that got everything else rolling. It gave me the courage to seek help in the form of therapy and to stand up to a lot of internalized victim-blaming voices that had spent years telling me I was being dramatic. I needed to be able to understand and put words to the problem before I could begin to pursue a solution. So I dug and researched and read and listened. Learning why my body was reacting in certain ways took the fear and randomness out of being triggered and gave me back a growing sense of calm and control as I learned how to truly show up for myself.
I highly recommend books such as The Body Keeps Score6 and Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others7 which provide a landscape of how trauma affects the body, brain, and habits, along with Instagram accounts such as Transcending Trauma With Yoga8 and The Breathe Network9 that encouragement and community with others experiencing the same things.
2. Experiment with meditation.
Every expert I talked with for this piece mentioned the importance of having a meditation routine at your disposal as a tool you can access at any time of the day or night. Focusing on your breath and following a guided meditation can decrease anxiety after a nightmare, relax a body tensed by insomnia, or allow a safe space to process an overwhelming emotion or flashback during a panic attack.
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