In the face of crisis and tragedy, sleep is not a priority. The activated nervous system yells, so you stay up, ready for the danger. This hyper-vigilant state can last for hours, days, and sometimes months and years.
But what starts as a protective mechanism to keep you up and deal with the danger at hand can quickly spiral into chronic insomnia caused by trauma and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).
What happens during acute stress
The moment acute stress hits, adrenaline and cortisol get produced by the body. If you’re in a situation where you need to run and protect yourself, this is a really healthy and helpful response.
These are some of the things that happen in your body:
- More glucose is made available to your muscles and your whole body will engage into this “fight or flight” response.
- Your heart pumps fast and your blood pressure increases to help move more oxygen and nutrients to major muscles.
- You may feel tense and twitchy.
- Your pupils dilate so you can see better.
- You’re constantly on edge, so you can be more attentive and observe your environment with more precision.
- Your digestion slows down because your body no longer considers it a priority—surviving is the priority.
Why stress causes sleep issues
The effects of stress can persist at night when the body and mind are unable to relax, and insomnia can develop as a result. If this acute stress response persists because of trauma, PTSD, or anxiety, insomnia can become chronic.
A nervous system on edge during the day will also be on edge at night. Some people are more predisposed to develop insomnia based on various factors such as age, genetics, hormone imbalances, gut issues, and inflammation.
When suffering from chronic stress, some of the following things will happen:
- The mind feels unsafe and the body has a hard time letting go and fully relaxing to be able to sleep.
- As cortisol stays chronically elevated, it eventually becomes imbalanced and soon after, it becomes too low, which leads to fatigue, along with the insomnia.
- The digestion is not prioritized and the production of digestive enzymes is lowered along with that of stomach acid, which then compromises the absorption of nutrients.
- The immune system function is not prioritized while stuck in a stress response, and this can lead to more infections.
What to do in time of crisis when you can’t sleep
Some of the following recommendations will help you sleep better, but will also interrupt the stress response and help you move from fight or flight mode into a parasympathetic mode—the relaxing and calming part of the nervous system.
- Check in on the basics. Whether you are in bed trying to fall asleep or going about your day, check in with yourself: are you safe right now, are you fed, are you hydrated, are you clothed properly? If any of these needs are not met, take care of them. Otherwise, tell yourself, “I am safe right now.” Do this every time your mind spins out of control, or when you are trying to fall asleep.
- Get grounded and be aware of your body and breath. In moments of acute or chronic stress, we naturally disconnect from our bodies, which makes the stress and anxiety even worse. Sweating in an infrared sauna, taking a yoga class, going for a run, or doing conscious breathing are some examples of things you can do to help relax your nervous system. Do any of these for at least 21 days to observe noticeable changes (though sometimes you may feel better immediately).
- Let wonderful guided meditations hold you and guide you to a more peaceful place. One of the meditation apps that I use is Insight Timer. I created a sleep-inducing meditation called “Sleep Inducing Relaxation with Delta Waves and Binaural Beats Music.” Simply search for my full name in the app and it will show up. When I am feeling anxious, one of my favorite guided meditations to listen to on the same app is by Kate James, called “Releasing Anxiety.” Yet another favorite of mine is by Sven Oliver Heck, called “Leaving Fear: The Power of Choice.”
- Eat 3 times per day. Eating consistently signals the nervous system that all is well and safe. Intermittent fasting or simply skipping meals doesn’t help the healing process and can exacerbate the stress response. Eat plenty of healthy fats and protein, and keep the carbs moderate and unprocessed. (Intermittent fasting can be tremendously helpful, though based on my clinical practice, it’s better to be done after a person is out of the initial stress response and when sleeping better.)
- Avoid stimulants such as coffee and energy shots. What can feel like a nice kick in energy (especially if you can’t sleep well and are tired) can quickly feel like an adrenaline rush and mimic anxiety. Instead, eat regularly, go for walks, take a nap, or simply have a short rest between 1 and 3pm, and give yourself extra care and space through the healing process.
- Do TRE—Tension Release Exercises. These exercises can literally discharge the stress from the nervous system. Animals do this naturally. For example, when the deer freezes in response to stress, after the attacker leaves, the deer shakes violently to discharge the stress. If you’ve never done these exercises, it is best to first work with a provider.
- Get acupuncture. Acupuncture can help calm the nervous system and improve your sleep. The National Acupuncture Detoxification Association (NADA) protocol is a specific set of acupuncture ear points that are used for PTSD, trauma, and anxiety and can be easily added to the body acupuncture points by a practitioner.
- Do EFT—Emotional Freedom Technique. EFT is also called tapping. The combination of tapping on acupuncture points and saying certain statements out loud can be tremendously helpful. Look for a therapist that does EFT to help you go through the initial steps or look for courses or videos online. Timothy Long from Imagine Healing offers EFT along with other techniques for trauma and PTSD.
- Seek professional help. Connect with family and friends but also seek help from professionals such as psychotherapists, acupuncturists, bodyworkers, doctors, and any other healthcare professionals who can work on supporting and healing your nervous system. Therapists can be of tremendous help to heal the PTSD and trauma.
I love the saying “look for the helpers.” Truly, they are everywhere, as long as you ask and look. I wish you great peace and sleep.