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The Role of Trauma in Sleep

The Role of Trauma in Sleep


Aoife O.
Apr 14, 2021

A traumatic event can feel like a storm passing through your life affecting your physical health, mental wellbeing, and ability to sleep. Traumatic events create a physiological response in the body that puts you in a state of hyper-awareness as a way to protect yourself from future harm. Consequently, sleep is elusive in this hypervigilant state as you’re unable to relax. A lack of restorative sleep makes it difficult to heal the trauma through rest and recuperation. Thus, exacerbating symptoms and ill-effects further. Finding a healing path from trauma is possible with professional guidance, being kind to yourself, and help from loved ones.

What Is Trauma?

Traumatic events such as experiencing bereavement, being in an accident, war zone, living through a natural disaster, losing your home, job, or being physically attacked can cause massive psychological trauma and stress on the body. Everyone deals with trauma differently but everyone who lives through traumatic events benefits from good quality sleep.

Trauma is an emotional response to a distressing event that leaves you shocked, feeling helpless, and unable to process the situation. Emotional trauma can manifest physically in disease, sleep disorders, gastric problems, depression, weight loss, and addictions.

  • Active Trauma: From a singular traumatic event

  • Chronic Trauma: From persistent exposure to stressful events such as child abuse, domestic abuse, or bullying

  • Complex Trauma: From exposure to several traumatic events

Psychological and Emotional Responses to Trauma

  • Anger
  • Denial
  • Guilt
  • Numbness
  • Hopelessness
  • Confusion
  • Shame
  • Depression
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Sadness
  • Cognitive decline

How Does Trauma Affect the Body?

A traumatic experience has a profound effect on emotional wellness but can also have physical manifestations. Being in a hypervigilant state of awareness is natural after trauma as you want to protect yourself from future harm. But, this makes it almost impossible to relax and fall asleep. Inability to sleep brings a myriad of side effects to your physical health such as heart problems, overeating/undereating, weight gain/weight loss, risk of stroke or diabetes, and decline in cognitive abilities, unable to concentrate, and being short-tempered with loved ones.

Physical symptoms of trauma can include:

  • Gastric problems
  • Headaches
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Panic attacks

Trauma and Sleep Quality

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric disorder that can be experienced by those who have lived through a traumatic event such as war, natural disaster, accident, rape, or threat to personal safety. 70-91% of people with post traumatic stress disorders (PTSD) often experience sleep disorders as a result of their trauma, with night terrors experienced by up to 71%. Treatment for PTSD can be holistic, medicinal, or talking therapies to heal from trauma and reset your sleep schedule.

Sleep Disorders

Trauma and sleep are closely related to sleep disorders such as insomnia and are a typical response to a traumatic experience. A persistent lack of sleep impacts physical health. Thus, exacerbating anxiety and sleeplessness further. Sleeping after a traumatic event can help process the experience.

Childhood Trauma and Sleep Disorders in Adulthood

Childhood trauma can impact brain development and causes insomnia. The effects may not be felt until later in life due to post traumatic stress disorder. A CDC-Kaiser study of 17,000 participants from 1995-1997 found adverse childhood experiences increase the risk of heart disease, physical health problems, anxiety, depression, and addictions later in life. Experiencing childhood trauma doubles the likelihood of difficulties falling asleep and staying asleep in adulthood.

How to Sleep After a Traumatic Event

Improving sleep after a traumatic event may require help from a mental health professional. Remember, there's no shame in seeking the care you need, and there are resources available to everyone, no matter the severity of your trauma, anxiety, or depression. For resources, see the CDC's mental health resource page here.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Cognitive-behavioral therapy can improve sleep quality in those suffering from PTSD. In a 2014 study, CBT improved overall psychological function and fewer nightmares after 6 months of treatment. CBT can help those with PTSD release trauma and improve sleep quality. Cognitive-behavioral therapy helps the patient to re-evaluate their thinking about the trauma to understand and cope with the event in a healthy way. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) specifically focuses on improving sleep/

Present Centered Therapy (PCT)

Present-centered therapy is a PTSD treatment that is non-trauma-focused. Patterns and behaviors are adapted and the patient is educated on the effect of the trauma on their life. Problem-solving techniques are learned and strategies are put in place to deal with current issues. Thus, reducing stress and improving sleep quality.


Depending on your circumstances, your doctor or psychiatrist may prescribe medications to help manage daytime and nighttime symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, or depression.

Physical Exercise

Physical activity is a great way to heal from trauma and improve sleep quality. Taking self-defense classes can help you regain a sense of empowerment after a traumatic experience. Physical movement improves mental and emotional wellbeing by not allowing the trauma to sit and fester in your muscles. Moving, sweating, and engaging in physical exercise, especially in the fresh air has tremendous benefits to physical health, emotional wellbeing, and the ability to process trauma.


Traumatic events are felt differently by everyone and are a personal experience. What is traumatic for one person may not be the same for another. Most people deal with some kind of loss at some point in their lives from bereavement, job loss, or any event that made them feel powerless or hopeless. Trauma is a shared human experience which is why it’s important to ask for help. Talk to your doctor, join a support group, ask for help from loved ones, and get some fresh air. Good quality sleep is vital to your mental wellbeing and a loss of sleep, even for a short time can greatly impact your health and relationships.

Disclaimer: Nolah does not provide medical advice. All resources on the Nolah blog, including this article, are informational only and do not replace professional medical counsel. Talk to your doctor about any health, mental health, or sleep-related issues.

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