Sleep is critical to living. When we are sleep deprived everything feels harder, we feel more sluggish, we find it more difficult to make decisions; we are moving through a fog. When we are sleep deprived our body’s immune system is also depleted and so we are more likely to fall ill. We start to underperform at work. Our social life suffers. We become moody, angry, anxious. Access to a consistent good night’s sleep is vital to our well-being.
For those who’ve suffered trauma though, sleep can be both elusive and terrifying. Sleep can be the time when the flashbacks and night terrors are worst. And so you try to avoid sleep. If the attack/s happened at night, night-time is the time when the trauma brain is on highest alert, jumping at every unknown sound, ever vigilant. If you’re asleep, you fear missing the warning sound, and so you stay awake. If you sleep, you sleep lightly. Insomnia, hyper-vigilance and night terrors all combine to make getting a restful night’s sleep feel like an impossible dream.
In working with my clients, I always start with sleep. When I was able to start to get control over my sleep, that was when I started to get control back over my life.
I specialise my coaching practice around trauma survivors (specifically rape and sexual assault) because I am a survivor of trauma too, and now that I have the tools I wished I’d had access to then, I share them with others and guide them to their ReConnected Life, living whole instead of one day at a time.
When dealing with the traumatised brain, and the deep-seated survival instinct that wants to remain alert and looking for danger, it is not just the moments before preparing for bed that must be addressed. Instead, the rituals for a restful night’s sleep continue all day long.
I break down the parts into three: trust, calm, and habit (rituals). And it is how we create these three elements throughout our days, in our morning routines, how we get up; how we go through our day (and don’t nap); how we prepare ourselves through the evening; and in the moments before sleep (and during sleep), that can break the vicious cycle that prevents sleep.
The first thing to recognise is that the part of you that was traumatised is still on high alert; the amygdala, the animal limbic brain, has got stuck like a broken record in one groove. The job of the unconscious is simply to keep you alive. It breathes for you. It digests food for you. It tells your immune system to fight for your health. And so because it still believes there is danger, it is staying vigilant. It needs to trust that there is safety, and only then will it rest.
I like to represent the part of us that doesn’t trust that we are safe as a broken child part (regardless of when the trauma happened). As adults now, we can step in and soothe the child inside. When the child trusts that the adult is in charge, then the child will rest.
There are many routes to this, two that I use most frequently are to befriend the child, and to re-wire the train track in the brain by suggesting new directions for the neurons to fire in (neuro-plasticity).
Befriending is done by guiding my client in a meditative process whereby they imagine themselves as a child in their defined safe space and they go to that child as an adult and take them in their arms (assuming the child gives permission to do so). It’s important for the child to be listened to, heard, and to understand that the adult is sorry that happened to them, and that they will not allow it to happen again.
This process can be done several times – at first the child may not want to respond to the adult; over time those barriers do break down and trust is established. It is also something that the client can do for themselves outside of the session, whenever they feel anxiety approaching, to go to their safe space, and soothe the fear-stricken part of them.
This process also has the added benefit of the client seeing that they can rescue themselves, that they have the power within them to soothe another (the child inside) and that they can be a trusted adult. This helps them to start to bounce back, and even bounce forward.
Re-wiring the train track is another way to build trust. I use the train-track analogy a lot with my clients. The messages we tell ourselves get welded deep into our unconscious, taking us to destinations that don’t serve us. But, we can lay new track, which through repetition can lead us to different destinations. The brain has plasticity and whilst the unconscious is in charge, we can consciously mould it to be a more helpful leader of us.
The simplest example of this is one client who realised that her best friend would never talk to her the way she was talking to herself in her head. So, she decided that she would from that point be her own best friend. When she caught herself saying critical things about herself, she stopped and said ‘I am my own best friend.’ She repeated this phrase to herself when out walking her dog and many times during each day. Soon, she found herself unconsciously making choices and decisions which she might never have made before; she was prioritising her well-being because she was her own best friend.
As described above, the traumatised brain is one on high alert. Anxiety and fear are the everyday experience of many trauma survivors, neither of which are helpful in achieving a restful night’s sleep. We must therefore do what we can to support the parasympathetic nervous system to rest and replenish.
Again, there are many, many, ways to achieve this, and survivors will find the ones which work for them. They range from the foods we eat, to how we take moment to moment in our days through mindfulness, through to using calming scents, and calming activities (e.g. don’t get that heart rate pumped just before bed, instead do some calming yoga).
Whilst I have now recovered from the debilitating panic attacks and night terrors that plagued me for years with PTSD, last year I was diagnosed with MS, and so fear of the unknown with a chronic illness with no cure and no knowable prognosis, is always just beneath the surface, bubbling. Stress is one of the factors that can cause a relapse, and so it is even more critical for me now to stay calm and I am counter-intuitively grateful for all the tools I learned in my recovery from PTSD which are supporting me now still.
My rituals for calm are to start the day with a short meditation, and then to sit with my first coffee (I still drink coffee even though it is a stimulant) and journal for about thirty minutes. This is a stream of consciousness that I let pour out of me with no judgement, just writing. It has the impact of clearing the brain of any debris or worry it might have been holding onto, and allows me to start the day feeling cleansed inside. I then (generally, but I’m not perfect) follow this with about 20 minutes of yoga.
During the day, I pace myself, not allowing myself to over-do it at all. If I need to take a break, I take a break, even when that break is just to step away from the laptop and take a few deep breaths. I find that by pacing instead of pushing, I can actually get more done, and feel calmer doing it.
Before bed, I am now spending at least 20-30 minutes reading, with a cup of calming herbal tea. This has meant I switch off the TV and don’t have the adrenalin coursing from whatever predicament the characters were in, in the latest binge-worthy drama.
At bed, I put a dab of lavender oil on my pillow and sometimes listen to a meditative sleep story, or a sleep meditation. With these practices, I tend to fall asleep straight away, and sleep through.
This is worlds apart to before my recovery from PTSD. Back then, I would watch TV until the small hours because I didn’t want to sleep. I would wake at the slightest noise, terrified. In the mornings I could not get out of bed.
I’ve detailed my calming rituals above but what I talk to all my clients about is how they can discover what works for them. We are all different, and what works for me might not work for everyone. In fact, it doesn’t. One of my clients never wanted to touch a meditation; another really couldn’t take to journaling and found when she tried it spiralled her down to where she really didn’t want to be. And so I encourage my clients to think about their sleep rituals as a science experiment, where they are the subject, and sleep is the desired outcome.
Every science experiment needs data. It also needs an open and curious mind, where there is no judgement if something doesn’t work.
In order to collect the data, my clients keep a sleep journal and they record all or some of the following:
- What were they doing before bed?
Were they watching TV, were they drinking alcohol, had they done some rigorous exercise not long before?
Were they reading, were they drinking a herbal tea, had they done some yoga, perhaps had a bath?
- What time did they go to bed?
- What was the quality of their sleep?
Did they struggle to fall asleep? Did they wake up in the night? Did they feel they slept lightly, or deeply?
- What kind of dreams (if any) did they have?
Were they night terrors, nightmares, flashbacks? Were they angry dreams, or anxious dreams, weird dreams or peaceful/happy dreams?
- How many hours sleep did they have? How many hours in bed? (not always the same thing)
- What time did they wake? How did they feel when they woke?
- How was their energy during the day? Did they nap, or want to nap?
- How was their mood through the day? Were they anxious, angry, peaceful?
One of my clients has recently gone through this process and discovered that if she is watching TV before bed, she has upsetting dreams; if she reads first, she categorises her dreams as merely ‘weird’. She’s also discovered that her energy is better when she’s had 8 hours sleep, and if she has more, she feels more sluggish through the day.
Have a go for yourself and see what your magic formula for sleep is. Don’t worry if you don’t keep track every night or slip up with the element you’re experimenting on that week. It’s a process and there is no judgement when experimenting. (Not being able to keep to something is data in itself; perhaps it’s not the right thing for you).
Habits take time to take hold, so give yourself time with any new element you want to see the outcome for. And don’t try to change everything at once – you won’t know which element is working and which is having no impact. Like all good science experiments, make sure you know what you’re measuring.
A note on night terrors.
Scent can be a very powerful force in supporting us to feel grounded and safe. Whether you choose lavender because it also has sleep-inducing properties, or something else, I recommend that if you do suffer from night terrors you keep a scented oil of your choosing by the side of your bed. It can be a life-line and recover you to the present extremely quickly.
I also recommend that you keep a pad and pen by your bed as well. When we wake up in the middle of the night it can be difficult to shake off what it was that woke us – whether it be as simple as needing to remember to do something next day, or whether it was a particularly bad memory. We need to release it from the brain, and if we write it down, our unconscious knows it can release it because it is now held elsewhere (in the notepad). You don’t have to review it in the morning, in fact, if you’re anything like me, you won’t be able to read the scrawl that you wrote when you were half asleep. But the unconscious does become reassured that it can now let it go, and the writing it down does help to enable you to go back to sleep again.
Finally, if when you wake you often find you are disoriented and struggle to remember that you are in the now, and not in the then, it can be helpful to have something in your line of vision which reminds you of the now – something with the date, where you are, how old you are, those kinds of things. I had some fun creating my own little board with all the practical details of now and placing it where I could see it.
Here’s to your restful night’s sleep. With love.