a woman with insomnia in a dark room, hit by sharp shapes of light, her eyes are wide open

Trauma, Insomnia, and Mental Health

My insomnia started trickling in slowly in my mid-20s. It was a perfect storm of mental health triggers: I was in an emotionally abusive relationship, I had just weaned off of my antidepressant (“I can fix this on my own,” I thought), and I had just started a new job with lots of high-level responsibilities. My sleep, which was once reliably sound, became disjointed and fitful.

Despite this, I was still able to manage. I downloaded a sleep tracking app and listened to ASMR videos. I was generally okay.

Until one day, after a very long and terrible fight with said abusive partner (don’t worry, that person is long gone now), my eyes closed but my brain didn’t turn off.

Losing the ability to sleep

I laid in my bed and heard my upstairs neighbor cleaning, nighttime buses running up and down the streets, people laughing after a night out – then eventually, the birds started chirping. I figured it was a fluke, and vowed to get to bed early the next night to make up for lost sleep.

Except that next night, the same thing happened. Sleep never came. And the next night, too. And the night after that. You get the picture. There’s a certain panicky feeling to the first few days without sleep, and I dreaded getting into my bed. I was so confused about what was happening to me – why couldn’t I just fall asleep? I was so, so, so tired.

Trauma-induced insomnia

When I look back on what triggered my years-long insomnia episode, the signs are clear. I was off of my antidepressant which helped me to manage both my depression and anxiety. I was also gathering trauma from being in an emotionally abusive relationship, and it was starting to store itself in my nervous system.

Scientific data shows that the phenomenon of trauma-induced insomnia is very real. Trauma can affect our body’s sleep regulation by putting our nervous systems into a state of hyperarousal.1 And it’s basically impossible to sleep when you’re in a constant state of fight, flight, or freeze.

My life became centered around my insomnia

For me, that state of hyperarousal was a waking nightmare. My anxiety was at an all-time high, and I felt like my life was ruled by my inability to sleep. I couldn’t stick to normal routines because my entire life felt so abnormal.

And despite not being able to sleep, my life became centered around it. I was constantly going to doctors, acupuncture sessions, yoga classes, meditation classes, getting massages, and buying supplements that I thought would cure the issue.

What finally helped me

What did end up helping me (after over 2 years of suffering) was a lot of cognitive behavioral therapy, a refilled antidepressant prescription, and time. My doctor also prescribed a prescription for a mild benzodiazepine that I could take on my worst nights, which I took regularly for about a year, until I didn’t need it anymore. Now, I manage my off-nights of insomnia with herbal remedies and meditation.

Be gentle with yourself

The relationship between insomnia, mental health challenges, and trauma is very real. Learning how to manage it all is very personal, and very challenging.

I encourage you to be as gentle as you can with yourself, and to not give up! You’ll find what works for you, it just might take some time.

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