Scientifically reviewed by Team

Written by

Tanya Hodgson

Tanya is a professional writer and editor with a B.A. in English from the University of Chicago. Tanya has been fighting insomnia for most of her adult life, and she knows firsthand how vital a good night’s rest can be for people with sleep problems.

The Effects of Trauma on Sleep

Our sleep is frustratingly easy to disrupt, even under normal circumstances. Physical and emotional trauma can be harmful for our sleep and it can contribute to sleep difficulties.

Our sleep is frustratingly easy to disrupt, even under normal circumstances. You could be a healthy, sleep-conscious person, and all it takes is one coffee cup too many to make you groggy and tired at work the next morning. Most people aren’t sleep-conscious at all, which means they regularly engage in behavior that ruins their ability to get good rest. It doesn’t take a sleep disorder to disrupt our circadian rhythm and compromise our health and immune system. However, in the world of nasty sleep disruption, very few things compare with trauma.

The word trauma often refers to the damage caused by any physically or emotionally harmful experience. Sources of potential trauma are way more common than anyone would reasonably expect, which unfortunately means a lot of people have sleeping problems or other health issues as a direct consequence of whatever hardships they’ve endured. In this article, our goal is to present information on the many ways that people can experience trauma, as well as how that affects their sleep and subsequent health situation. That way, some readers with sleeping problems might be able to recall a traumatic event that has led them to this issue, which can help them seek proper therapy. Let’s get into it.


The Many Sources of Trauma

There are two main kinds of trauma – physical trauma and psychological trauma. Physical trauma occurs as a result of physical injuries. While the phrase can adequately be used to describe mild injuries, it’s most commonly used to refer to serious ones – injuries that come with a state of shock, breathing failures or even death, in the worst case scenario. On the other hand, the term “psychological trauma” refers to emotional damage caused by highly distressing events and experiences. When people use the word “trauma,” they refer to psychological trauma in most situations.

Both types of trauma can be encountered in many different scenarios, with some particularly threatening and horrific situations being able to cause both physical and psychological trauma at once. Traumatic events can happen out of nowhere, which makes them difficult or impossible to prepare for. In the context of psychological trauma, there are scenarios that people think about in advance and mentally brace themselves for – and then get seriously affected by anyway. Let’s look at a list of some common traumatic experiences, to showcase how common this phenomenon can be:


Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Its Effects on Sleep

TBIs happen as a result of a violent and traumatic injury, primarily to their body or head. This trauma can be roughly anything that severely shakes up the head and body, with the most severe cases often including a physical object entering the brain tissue. Example causes include car accidents, violence (including military combat) or even sports activities. It is important to differentiate between mild TBI and moderate or severe TBI, as the consequences and symptoms differ wildly between the two. Most cases of TBI (around 80% to be specific) are mild, thankfully. Still, the CDC estimates that around 50,000 people die each year from traumatic brain injury.

Mild TBI can have a plethora of possible symptoms, including a temporary loss of consciousness, difficulty speaking, nausea (with frequent vomiting), dizziness, headaches, sensitivity to sound or light, mood swings, anxiety, depression, and sleep problems. These symptoms typically kick in a couple of days after the traumatic event, and last several weeks, at worst. However, moderate and severe TBI is much worse. Every symptom that you experience with mild TBI gets much worse, and additional (and horrific) symptoms are added on top. These symptoms include a much higher difficulty waking up from sleep, coma, seizures, increased aggression, and clear fluid drainage from the nose or ears. Any symptoms of moderate or severe TBI will appear sooner than those of mild TBI. As for causes, you’re looking at a list that includes falls (which are considered responsible for 47% of all TBI cases), being struck by an object (through accidents, violence or self-harm), military combat and vehicle accidents.

As TBIs happen due to physical injuries, the resulting pain and discomfort are obviously capable of disrupting sleep. It has been estimated that around 60% of all TBI patients experience difficulties falling or staying asleep. It’s easy to see why, as the brain is where our circadian rhythm is regulated, so direct injuries to it are almost guaranteed to disrupt our biorhythm and cause other complications. In particular, people who suffer from TBIs can expect to tangle with one or more of the following sleep disorders:


PTSD and Its Effects on Sleep

Post-traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD for short) is a very common condition affecting those who have experienced trauma in the past. It typically occurs within a three-month period after experiencing the traumatic event and is “announced” by intense feelings (and symptoms) of anxiety. Not everyone that goes through trauma will have to deal with PTSD, but the odds don’t look great. PTSD was “discovered” during World War I when deeply troubled soldiers were examined – at that time, this condition was called shell shock.

Two types of PTSD exist – acute (another word for “short-term”) and chronic (long-term). Acute PTSD, while harmful and crippling, typically succumbs to treatment over the course of six months or so. On the other hand, chronic PTSD is much harder to treat, often taking years – and unfortunately, sometimes the patient never fully recovers from this condition. For someone to be diagnosed with PTSD, they have to experience all of the following symptoms for as long as a month:

When it comes to how PTSD affects sleep, you can expect to encounter many of the same sleep disorders and syndromes that affect TBI patients. These include narcolepsy, insomnia, delayed sleep-phase syndrome, sleepwalking, obstructive sleep apnea, bruxism, RLS, and PLMD. However, the psychological damage associated with PTSD also manifests itself in a couple of unique ways. For example:


Treatment Methods for Trauma-Related Sleeping Problems

Due to the nature of TBIs and PTSD, any side-effects that come with prescription and over-the-counter medication could be extremely harmful to multiple aspects of your health. As a result, people dealing with trauma often seek out drug-free therapy methods, which includes:


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