When we’re talking about healing the brain and body from chronic stress and trauma, one of the key factors is restful sleep. However, for those who have a history of trauma, sleep is one of the first things that becomes disrupted!
The brain and body do all of its recovery work during sleep. Sleep is actually a very active process! Things get cleaned up and organized so that by the morning the body can run efficiently again.
If the brain and body are unable to adequately participate in this clean-up and organization process, one’s biology begins to be dragged down. The body is already struggling with the effects of trauma on one’s biology, but with the lack of sleep, one’s biology will be pulled down even further, leaving the body unable to fully heal.
When one’s biology has to work harder to function, one will also experience more stress. Situations that may ordinarily frustrate them, will now send them into a state of being overwhelmed, therefore, bringing them right back into their trauma zone.
Without restful sleep, a person’s ability to cope with stress is much lower, because their biology’s threshold isn’t as good, leading it to become overwhelmed and traumatized more by life rather than find healing.
There are many examples and studies on this topic, but just one illustration of this scenario includes a study done on patients with fibromyalgia. Fibromyalgia is one of the conditions correlated with childhood trauma, especially early attachment trauma. These symptoms of pain and fatigue are part of the chronic effects of trauma on their body, specifically their nervous system.
In this study, their deep sleep was shown to be frequently interrupted by the nervous system randomly jumping into a high alert state. Yet, those with higher deficits of deep sleep caused them to have more pain and fatigue.
From this, we can take away the understanding that as we or an individual heals, our sleep will naturally get better over time. In the meantime, we have to pull out tricks and tools to get our bodies to sleep better so that it can heal faster. Not only will we have to try to optimize the amount of time that we’re asleep, but we’ll also have to make sure that time is actually full of restful sleep.
So, as difficult as sleep can be when we have a history of trauma, you are not stuck with getting poor sleep for the rest of your life; however, I’m sure it’s felt that way! Improving our sleep takes work; it won’t just happen on its own yet. But it’s definitely worth the time and effort, because it’ll help you heal much faster!
Why Can’t I Sleep?
Sleep is all about the nervous system and getting it into the right state.
As a reminder, there are 3 different states in which the nervous system can be.
The 2 nervous system states that are most familiar to those of us with histories of trauma are (1) the sympathetic state (high alert, fight or flight, anger and anxiety) and (2) the dorsal vagal parasympathetic state (overwhelm, freeze, collapse of the system, and depression).
The state that is required for restful sleep is the parasympathetic state, otherwise known as the “Rest and Digest” state.
Since those with histories of trauma generally go back and forth between the high alert and overwhelmed states of the nervous system, restful sleep is going to be difficult. It’s very common in those with histories of trauma to be on high alert for such a long period of time that the body can no longer maintain it. The system collapses and gets a few hours of deep sleep before it goes into high alert and activation again.
As we heal our biology from the chronic effects of trauma, our nervous system will be more adept at being in the “rest and digest” parasympathetic state. This is when better sleep will come naturally. It’s a process!
However, our nervous system does need that rest so that it can rejuvenate and work more efficiently so that it can do the hard work of healing.
So, let’s look at some tricks and tools for getting better sleep while our nervous systems are still stuck in the high alert and activation state.
Sleep is a Sensory Experience for the Nervous System
Since we’re going to try and trick our nervous systems to stay completely in the “rest and digest” mode for longer periods of time at night, we need to understand how the nervous system works.
The nervous system is the communication system between the brain and our environment. The nervous system is all about the sensory experience with our environment to assess threat and help us survive.
This sensory experience is both internal and external. For example, if someone touches us, our nervous system will quickly communicate the message of unexpected touch to the brain and we’ll wake up. If our bladders are full, our nervous system will communicate the sense of pressure and stretch on our tissues to our brain, and we’ll wake up.
By changing the sensory input from our environment, both internal and external, we can trick our nervous system into thinking it’s safe when it would normally be setting off the alarm and waking us up.
Based on your particular history of trauma and the associated sensory input that got attached to that memory, some of the sensations that we’ll talk about here may have a greater impact than others.
The whole point is that you’re not stuck with poor sleep! You can hack your system to promote better sleep and optimize your biology for better healing from trauma.
Sensory Factor #1: Light
Light is one of the major sensory experiences of the nervous system.
Light changes our sleep hormone, melatonin, that has also been coined, “The darkness hormone.” In fact, as Dr. Khullar reminds us in this Psychiatric Times article, light has the strongest influence on this hormone that not only helps us fall asleep, but also keeps us asleep.
There is growing evidence that skin exposure to light will affect our body’s ability to repair and rejuvenate while sleeping. This is why it’s best to make the room entirely dark rather than just an eye cover.
Light in the blue spectrum is especially activating to the nervous system, and gives the brain the message it’s daytime and will shut down melatonin. Light in the red spectrum does not have this effect on the melatonin and nervous system.
If waking up to the dark is terrifying for you or your child’s system, that isn’t good either. If you have to use a night light until the nervous system is more calm, use ones that only have red light and no blue. Again, any blue light in the room will make you wake up more and keep you awake longer, because of the way it messes with your melatonin levels!
Lowbluelights products are an easy way to get products that you can safely use at night that won’t affect your melatonin levels. Their products include a night light, reading light, flashlight, and night glasses.
To optimize my melatonin and sleep, I personally use night glasses starting 30-45 minutes before my bedtime, I unplug everything in the room that has any light, and I put up blackout curtains. My room is completely dark!
Blackout curtains are not expensive and can be stylish! You can see the ones I bought that work great here.
Sensory Factor #2: Temperature
The room temperature for optimal sleep is probably cooler than you think!
While there’s a range for people, the studies have shown that 65 degrees F is the ideal room temperature for most bodies, with a range between 60 and 67 degrees. For infants and toddlers, the ideal temperature is a little higher with the range between 65 and 70.
One of the effects of melatonin, the darkness hormone, is to drop our core body temperature as this helps us fall asleep and stay asleep. One more reason to keep that room dark.
Another cool trick to help us fall asleep faster is to warm up the feet so that the blood is shunted to our feet and will ultimately, help cool down our internal temperature faster.
There are a couple of ways to do this: placing something hot at our feet, wear thick socks, or do magic socks.
Magic socks can be a really fun routine to do with kids, so if you’re parenting a child who has Attachment Disorder or has trouble sleeping, I definitely recommend it. It brings in some play and connection before bed, but then helps them fall asleep faster, as well as have deeper sleep. I explain magic socks in this blog.
For me personally, I have found keeping the room cool is essential for me to get good sleep. However, my feet need to be warm and my body also needs to be cozy. I’ve been using wool socks warmed in the dryer and an infrared Biomat – these help me fall asleep and feel well rested when I wake up.
Sensory Factor #3: Sound
Our nervous systems are very sensitive to sounds when we’re in a stressed out, high alert, or activation mode!
Different sounds will naturally put us in high alert states, like sirens and the higher pitched noises like cries, screams, and even machinery.
If you live around city noises, it will disturb your sleep!
However, some people with histories of trauma also have a hard time with silence and quiet.
Thankfully, there’s a way to address activation from noises and silence and in a way that puts your brain in the best state to get deep restful sleep.
The brain is an electrical field that has waves associated with its activity. We can see these waves on devices like an electroencephalogram (EEG), and so we know the progression of waves that are associated with sleep.
The brain has a pattern of waves that it cycles through during the night multiple times. The different stages of sleep with its associated brain waves are seen in this image.
I show this because there are sounds that we can use to help put our brains in these different brain waves.
Isochronic tones with binaural beats is one way to put our brain in the deeper stages of sleep. This has been used by many people to hack their sleep and feel more rested if they have to get a few hours less sleep one night. Using isochronic tones with binaural beats has been shown to shorten the amount of time that we actually fall asleep once we go to bed.
The way to use this is to find a video on Youtube or music you can download and then put in your headphones. The reason for this is because it puts different tones in each side to induce the delta waves so in each ear piece.
There are lots of samples available online, but I like to use one that will stimulate the natural pattern of the brain waves since that will be the most restful sleep. Keeping my brain in the deeper stages all night is not a good thing, since it’s the natural pattern that I want to create! The natural cycles tend to run about 90 minutes in length.
For that reason, I personally use this sample I found on youtube.
Meditation music can also put one’s brain into a deeper state along with delta waves! The best meditation music I have found for sleep is the Gregorian chants and the Om Mantra’s like this one. There’s a whole science behind this music, the spectrum of Hertz that they create, and how that changes the brain waves.
For some, nature sounds are relaxing, especially water. There are also lots of options for “white noise” in the background. Even some classical music can be relaxing and calming enough for the background noise to serve the purpose of improving sleep.
The point, here, is to experiment with these different sound options to see what your nervous system likes the best! These sounds will not only block out other noises that could be activating to your nervous system, but also help to create the delta brain waves for deeper sleep.
One of the worst things you can do for your nervous system is to keep the TV running or have stimulating music on. Many people do this, because they need the background noise, but because of the light and the sounds that will actively stimulate the nervous system, it will not be the optimal choice for a restful sleep.
Sensory Factor #4: Touch
Our nervous systems are very sensitive to touch.
Have you ever tried to touch somebody who’s really angry and aggressive? You won’t usually get a very pleasant response!
Touch can trigger either a calming effect or an activating effect, signaling safety and comfort or threat and danger.
Touch is such a powerful sensory input into the nervous system, so much so that you should figure out whether touch at night is calming or activating for you, especially if you share a bed with someone, knowing whether or not them touching you will actually be keeping you awake or will soothe you to sleep. This is a huge deal!
My mother tells me that I could only fall asleep at night if she was holding my hand. Certain types of touch still have a very calming effect on me today! If another part of my body is touching someone else though, I am activated, which will take me longer to fall asleep and cause me to wake up more often.
Touch also includes the type of sheets you have on your bed and the clothing material of your pajamas. For everybody it’s different and you should invest some of your time in trying to figure out what various types of sheets and clothing gives you the best sleep.
For me, fleece and flannels are very comforting, so I buy blankets and pajamas of either fleece or flannel so that I can get the best sleep I can.
I hope this review of the sensory experience of sleep has been helpful to you! I know if you start to implement some of these tricks and tools your sleep will be improved.
I really do believe in the power of experiments when it comes to our health and healing! Play around with these and see what your body needs at this point in its healing journey.
Your journey may be similar to mine, where you’ll have to adjust your tricks and tools over time in order to continue to heal your nervous system, and maintain that harmony and balance for your optimal healing. Now, I no longer need to do as much as I had to when I first started to have goodnight’s sleep. However, at the beginning, I was doing a lot and I found what worked and didn’t work for me.
There are more tricks and tools that we can use to hack our sleep for improved rest.
In next week’s blog, we will cover Part 2 of How to Sleep Better where we’ll discuss the sensory input from our internal environment, including blood sugar levels, hormones, chemicals, and the digestive tract.
To Good Sleep for optimal Healing!
Breus, Michael (201?). The Power of When.
Khullar A. The Role of Melatonin the Circadian Rhythm and Sleep-Wake Cycle. Psychiatric Times, July 9, 2012.
Roizenblatt S, Moldofsky H, Benedito-Silva AA, Tufik S. Alpha Sleep Characteristics in Fibromyalgia. Arthritis Rheum. Jan 2001;44(1): 222-30.