I have already published on this site a great many articles about how those of us who have suffered significant childhood trauma are at considerably higher risk of suffering from psychiatric conditions, as adults than average. One such condition is that we tend to be far more prone to developing what psychologists term ‘hypervigilance’ (partly due to the fact that, as children, we learned to be on the constant lookout for potential threats).
It has been proposed by the psychologists Perlisent et al. (1997), that such hypervigilance, and the associated hyperarousal of our nervous systems that it entails, can be linked to insomnia in those who have experienced early life trauma. Insomnia, in this group of the population, is especially likely to occur during periods of adult life when the individual is exposed to further significant stress; this is due to the fact that (as several studies have shown) those who have suffered childhood trauma are, on average, far less able to cope with stress as adults than average.
FINDINGS OF SLEEP STUDIES OF ADULTS WHO HAVE SUFFERED SIGNIFICANT CHILDHOOD TRAUMA :
– The psychologists Sadeh et al. (1995) found that adults who had experienced severe abuse in childhood experienced significantly less ‘quiet-motionless’ sleep than average.
– Bader et al’s study (2007) confirmed the above results and also found that those who had experienced significant childhood trauma :
– took significantly longer to fall asleep than average
– experienced significantly less ‘refreshing’/poorer quality sleep than average
POSSIBLE EXPLANATIONS FOR ABOVE FINDINGS :
I have already said that the sensation of hypervigilance/hyperarousal those of us who have experienced significant childhood trauma frequently experience is likely to be one contributory factor that puts us at greater risk than average of developing insomnia in our adult lives.
Also, it has been proposed by the researchers Otte et al. (2005), that those who have experienced childhood trauma may, as a result, have neurophysiological reasons for being prone to insomnia, as their brains have been affected in such a way that they become far more reactive to stress is usual (click here to read my post on how childhood trauma can affect the physical development of the brain).
THE ROLE OF DISTRESSING MEMORIES
Another explanation as to why more sleep disturbance is found in those who suffered early trauma is that they tend to have a far greater stock of distressing memories than average which, when triggered, lead to nightmares and the associated deleterious effect on sleep.
Finally, it has been suggested by the psychologists Gregory et al (2005) that it is not infrequently the case that those who have experienced early life trauma have had chaotic upbringings and, as a result, did not learn healthy sleeping patterns during childhood.
Hamilton et al. (2018) conducted a study involving 102 young people who had prior histories of depression. The participants had their sleep monitored for 2 weeks and each filled in a questionnaire about their childhoods. The results of the study indicated that there was a significant correlation between having experienced emotional neglect in the past and insomnia as assessed over the two-week experimental period.
AN OVERALL REVIEW OF STUDIES THAT HAVE INVESTIGATED THE LINK BETWEEN ADVERSE CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES AND ADULT INSOMNIA AND OTHER SLEEP DISORDERS
A systematic review of studies was undertaken by Kajeepeta et al. in 2015.
30 studies were reviewed in total and, out of these 27 (25 retrospective studies and 2 prospective studies) found a statistically significant correlation between the experience of childhood adversity and the later development of various sleep disorders. Sleep disorders identified included:
- sleep paralysis
- nightmare distress
- sleep apnea
The researchers also noted that in many of the studies, the greater the participants’ experience of childhood adversity, the stronger with the association with the development of sleep disorders in adult life.
The authors of the study concluded that their findings further draw attention to the need for sufferers of sleep disorders who have experienced childhood adversity to receive trauma-informed care.
We have already seen that those of us who have experienced significant childhood trauma are at increased risk of developing insomnia.
Fortunately, however, with an increasing amount of research being conducted into the condition, we are learning more and more about how we can overcome it. I provide a list of the main ways the experts suggest we deal with insomnia below:
1) Remind ourselves that insomnia is a common complaint and that it does not do as much harm as many people think
2) Remind ourselves that it is eminently treatable and does not need to be a long-term condition
3) Turn off the light as soon as we go to bed and ensure the room is as dark as possible. The reason for this is that the darkness helps the body produce more of the ‘sleep hormone’ melatonin.
In connection with this, it should be noted that ‘blue light’ is especially disruptive to sleep. Unfortunately, gadgets such as computers, tablets and smartphones emit such blue light so it follows that we should refrain from using such gadgets directly before we go to bed.
Indeed, research now shows that wearing amber-tinted glasses (which block out blue light) can improve not just our sleep, but also our mood.
Finally, in relation to the effects of light on sleep, it has been found that individuals who feel the need to have a night light switched permanently on, perhaps because they suffer from nightmares/ night terrors, may benefit from one that emits red light; this is because red light does not adversely affect the body’s production of melatonin.
4) Only go to bed when sleepy (hopefully, this will lead to a mental association between bed and sleep – but to help make this happen, it will also be necessary to stick to point number 5, below).
5) If you’ve been lying in bed awake for more than 15 minutes, get up and do something relaxing.
6) Research suggests that the ideal room temperature in which to sleep is approximately 18 degrees Celsius
7) Psychologically, it helps anxious/fearful type individuals to feel extra-safe in their bedroom which may be achieved, for example, by fitting a strong lock to the bedroom door.
8) It is well known, of course, that taking at least moderate exercise during the day helps one to sleep well at night; in this respect, T’ai chi and yoga may be of particular benefit.
9) A small amount of carbohydrate (say, 200-250g) before going to bed can have a relaxing and soporific effect.
10) Research suggests that room humidity of about 65% is optimum for most people.
11) Many people lie in bed at night worrying about what they have to do the next day. Therefore, making a ‘to do’ list before going to bed and then telling yourself you now don’t need to think about it again until the next day can be helpful in preventing nocturnal fretting.
12) Try aromatherapy (e.g. spray some lavender aroma on your pillow)
13) Try visualization techniques
14) Try to concentrate on thinking about positive things (such as happy memories)
15) If negative or distressing thoughts intrude, try a thought blocking technique such as mentally repeating a neutral word such as ‘the’.
16) Trying desperately to sleep, of course, does not work. Paradoxically, trying to stay awake can help to induce sleep.
17) Remind yourself that, even though you are not asleep, the rest is still doing you good.
KLAUS BADER et al., Adverse childhood experiences associated with sleep in primary insomnia. Journal of sleep research. First published: 17 August 2007
Otte C, Hart S, Neylan TC, Marmar CR, Yaffe K, Mohr DC. A meta-analysis of cortisol response to challenge in human aging: importance of gender. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2005;30(1):80-91. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2004.06.002
AviSadeh D.Sc.James P.D.McGuire M.D.HenrySachs M.D.RonSeiferPH.D.A Tremblay Roberta Civita Robert M.Hayden PhD Sleep and Psychological Characteristics of Children on a Psychiatric Inpatient Unit. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Volume 34, Issue 6, June 1995, Pages 813-819
Kajeepeta S, Gelaye B, Jackson CL, Williams MA. Adverse childhood experiences are associated with adult sleep disorders: a systematic review. Sleep Med. 2015 Mar;16(3):320-30. doi: 10.1016/j.sleep.2014.12.013. Epub 2015 Jan 21. PMID: 25777485; PMCID: PMC4635027.
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.