“Sleep, those little slices of death – how I loathe them.” Now, normally I do love some Edgar Allan Poe, but in this case, the dude was seriously wrong! I love a good sleep. Whether it’s getting 40 winks, crashing, passing out cold, catching some Z’s or just simply nodding off, sleep is universally awesome.
Unless you can’t do it.
A gigantic 92 percent of veterans with Post-traumatic Stress (PTS) deal with some form of insomnia. Compared with just 28 percent of the general population, it’s plain to see sleep is a big issue for vets. Mix in the problem of nightmares, which a little more than half of all combat vets suffer from, and there are even fewer veterans sleeping through the night.
Insomnia and PTS form a vicious cycle: problems with sleeping often compound the effects of PTS. PTS is associated with a decrease in serotonin production; serotonin regulates the parts of the brain that deal with fear and worry. Low serotonin often leads to sleep disorders like insomnia, which makes PTS worse, which decreases serotonin production… On top of that, insomnia is also associated with an increased risk of suicide.
If you are experiencing issues sleeping, it’s important that you go get help. Your doctor can help you treat PTS and sleep disorders. There are so many options that could help you, including psychotherapy, cognitive behavior therapy and even medications. But, there are also a few things you can do on your own, in addition to treatment.
Here’s a few steps you can take to mitigate PTS-related sleep disruptions:
- Your sleep area should be in a location where you feel safe. You want to be free from triggers that could cause you to relive the trauma.
- Sometimes, it’s more comfortable to sleep when a trusted friend or family member is sleeping in the same room or close by.
- Start winding down for the night earlier in the evening. If you take time to relax earlier, and come up with a consistent bedtime routine, you are telling your brain that it’s time to sleep. You reinforce these sleep cues by going through the same steps each night before bed. Some things you can try include playing soft music, meditating, muscle relaxation, taking a bath, or reading a book.
- Make yourself the perfect sleep environment. A night light might be a good idea. Maybe you need a white noise machine to help block out disturbing sounds. Is your room too hot? It should be between 60 – 67 degrees for a good night’s sleep. And what about your mattress and bedding, is it the right kind for your body type?
- Make sure you have enough time to sleep. Schedule enough time to get the right amount of sleep. If you have difficulty getting to sleep, add extra time up front. If you feel like you don’t have enough time to rest, then you probably don’t.
- Listen to your body! Go to bed when you feel ready. It’s very important though, to not go to bed too early. Laying there, worrying about not sleeping, is not the way to get to sleep.
- Avoid activities that aren’t beneficial to sleep. Eating large meals, drinking alcohol, drinking anything with caffeine – you want to avoid all of these things just before going to bed. And screen time late at night (video games, TV, mobile devices) is a no-go. White light sources like screens can make your brain think it’s daytime, and that’s the last thing you want.
When all else fails, talk to your doctor! There are many medications that are helpful for sleep problems. There are even some skills you can learn that will help improve your sleeping, but you need to talk to someone first. The VA’s National Center for PTSD came up with a list of things that will help as well.
I think Ernest Hemingway said it best when he said, “I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?”