Trauma + Insomnia
Last updated: January 2022
When you first experience a trauma during the hours that the rest of the world is asleep, insomnia reminds you of it every single night going forward.
Insomnia makes it impossible to forget that nights are terrifying and lonely, and you are unprotected in your most vulnerable state. It doesn't really matter what the trauma is or how it plays out; only that it was, and is, devastating and scary and traumatic to you.
Insomnia reminds you of your trauma
From the moment you're ready to close your eyes, insomnia is there, knocking on your eyelids, yelling hey – remember? Remember? Remember how awful it was? Remember how scared you were? Turning on the TV or listening to calming meditations – techniques that used to help manage your insomnia – they have nothing on you now. Lack of sleep begins to feel desperate.
Insomnia after trauma
Insomnia after trauma is begging for sleep medication after going years without it. It's taking that new medication, and still, every night, waking up at the same time as the original incident. Finding yourself drenched in a cold sweat, shaking, close to tears, wondering how long it'll take your heart rate to return to normal.
Insomnia after trauma is replaying the worst memories of your life at top volume, at the most inconvenient times, preventing you from the rest you desperately need to help process and heal. It keeps you up long after the rest of the world is asleep, wondering how you can survive the brutality that results from feeling like you're locked in your own mind.
Insomnia after trauma is finally falling asleep from sheer exhaustion, from the overpowering emotions, from the grief that is radiating through every cell of your body. Then, it's waking up, confused about where you are and what day it is and for one minute, or one second even, forgetting that your trauma is real and not just a nightmare you were forced to suffer through while unconscious.
Insomnia after trauma is really, really difficult. Even when you've known insomnia before trauma, before your world turned upside, before a part of you broke into pieces. Somehow, it seems that all of your old coping mechanisms are less valuable, and sometimes even downright ineffective.
Like starting all over again
The wiring of your brain has changed with the trauma you have undergone, and with it, the ways to calm your mind and your body have changed too. In a way, it's like starting all over again. Facing insomnia with new eyes. Eyes that are beyond exhausted and overwhelmed. Eyes that are putting all of their resources towards processing and healing from the trauma during the daytime hours.
Where does that leave you?
Suggestions for processing and healing
From someone walking through this process right now, here are my best suggestions:
- Be patient with yourself
- Find calm when you can't sleep
- Talk to a professional
You didn't learn how to manage insomnia overnight the first time around, and everything in your mind, body, and life is currently in flux. Give yourself grace.
Force yourself to watch something or read something or write something that distracts you from replaying the trauma or helps you process through it.
A therapist, a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a grief counselor. Talk about your trauma, and talk about your insomnia. Be open and willing to try new sleep medication, even for the short term. Know that this won't go away overnight, but it also won't last forever.
What do you do at night when you can't sleep?