What to Do If You’re Terrified to Go to Sleep
So I kept on the path I knew, which in a society that values achievement and productivity, was concerningly easy. I worked more hours than a brain should and resented the fact that sleep was a necessary part of the human experience. I tried various potential fixes—yoga, journaling, long walks—but you can’t keep a plant healthy by just watering its leaves.
At 26, two years after that first red flag in the conversation with my best friend, I hit a wall. It was a daily catch-22, with my chronic nightmares hyping up my anxiety, which would then cause me to lie in bed stressing about the nightmares to come. In the end, learning about the ways trauma was impacting my body was key to help me to begin healing my relationship with sleep.
How trauma affects the body—and sleep
What I know now is that healing from trauma is not a linear experience. It’s also not a final destination, but rather an ongoing process of caring for yourself and tending to the effects of your experience. And sleep is an important part of this process.
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 turn 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 psycho-education around our experiences and understanding the neurobiology of trauma can be incredibly affirming.”