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How trauma affects sleep quality

12-08-2013

It may come as no surprise to most of us, but traumatic events can cause a decline in sleep quality. Trauma has also been found to increase nightmares, which really is not a big shock either.

However, while anecdotally we may have known this, a recent study has shown what impact trauma has on our sleep.  The incidence of insomnia and nightmares appears to increase dramatically after experiencing a traumatic event, the study found.

The study looked at 2,766 adults, all of whom had reported at least one traumatic experience on a US National Stressful Events Survey. Of this group, a whopping 43.7% complained of sleep disturbances that they believe were connected to the trauma, according to the researchers. In other words, of those who have suffered significant trauma, around half will have sleep problems that appears to be linked to the traumatic events.

13.2% of the study population reported lifetime trauma-related nightmares, while 16.8% reported trauma-related insomnia, and another 13.7% reported they had both trauma-related nightmares and trauma-related insomnia. The remaining 56%, however, did not report any sleep disturbances that were related to the traumatic event.

The study found that trauma-related insomnia and nightmares are highly prevalent among those reporting a history of exposure to stressful events and prevalence increases among patients who meet criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.

The study also looked at people who had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and found that 92% of them experienced some form of sleep disturbance, though this finding is hardly remarkable as anyone who has been dialogised with PTSD will have been severely stressed by the trauma and will be suffering from a range of symptoms (including sleep problems) that lead to their diagnosis in the first place.

The events defined as stressful in the study were exposure to natural disasters, involvement in an accident or fire, experiencing combat or work in a war zone, experiencing physical or sexual assault, witnessing physical or sexual assault, observing a threat or injury to a family member, witnessing a death due to violence, and witnessing a sudden, unexpected death.

So what can we take out of this study? Obviously anyone who has gone through a traumatic event will be more prone to sleep disorders, but is there anything that can be done to help them or at least ameliorate the problems?

One of the easiest yet useful things that can be done is to educate people on the consequences of serious trauma and on how they can improve their sleep health. There are a number of simple changes that an individual can make that will improve their sleep, from creating a good sleeping environment to changing diet, from buying a better bed through to going to bed and getting up at the same time every day. While this may not be enough to completely stop the sleep disturbances, it may be enough to limit their destructive impact on the individual’s life.

Trauma effects sleep, but it the impact can be lessened. The important thing is to acknowledge the connection and educate.


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