How to get your sleep back after a traumatic experience

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South Africa’s crime rates mean that for many of our citizens getting a good night’s sleep is not as simple as it may be for others.

The threat of crime as well as the nervous system changes that happen after a traumatic event can become barriers to getting good sleep. When the nervous system is flooded with neurochemicals such as adrenaline and cortisone a new ‘higher’ resting rate is set and this is state is known as ‘post-traumatic hyperarousal’.

Trying to fall asleep whilst in this state can give rise to a myriad of sleep issues:

  1. Insomnia – difficulty falling and staying asleep due to flash backs and troubling thoughts.
  2. Anxiety – Night-time and darkness can exacerbate feelings of fear and foreboding. Anxiety can present with heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, nightmares and night sweats.
  3. Hypervigilance – Needing to check and double check that doors are locked and blinds are closed may add to multiple night wakings.

Although you did not choose to be a victim of crime, you can choose to take some steps towards your recovery.

Sleeping well starts with good sleep hygiene and a solid bedtime routine. However, in the case of sleeping after a traumatic event, there are some additional steps which should be taken.

  • Sleep where you feel safest - Avoid any room that you associate with the trauma, even if it is your bedroom. Consider co-sleeping if it could help you feel more safe.
  • Adapt your sleep environment – You may want to avoid a dark room and invest in a dim night light while on your road to recovery. Installing a panic button near your bed may also make you feel less helpless.
  • Practice a calming activity before bedtime – A warm bath, some quiet reading, or a few minutes of prayer or meditation can assist to calm your nervous system and help your body find the sleep it needs.
  • Avoid listening to or watching disturbing material – Watching the news or discussing your traumatic event before bedtime will only serve to exacerbate your sleep difficulties.
  • Climb into bed when you feel sleepy – Spending too much time in bed can make falling asleep more difficult. During the day, try to avoid napping and fit in some physical activity where possible to release feel-good hormones that promote night-time sleep.

These sleep tips and information were adapted from:

  1. Witness Justice, in partnership with the National Sleep Foundation,
  2. Barry Krakow of The Sleep and Human Health Institute and
  3. Gregory Belenky physician and a leading sleep researcher of the Walter Reed Institute of Research.

For more information you can follow this link on sleeping after trauma.

Sleep tips to help you get a good night's rest. 

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