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How to Sleep with Complex Trauma

How I learned to sleep despite flashbacks, nightmares, and screaming in my sleep

At the beginning of my healing, as I realized that I suffered from Complex Trauma / PTSD, I was sleeping 2-3 hours a night, my body waking me up every hour in the middle of the night, sweating, crying, unable to feel my legs, my whole body shaking. My nervous system was triggered constantly, in a state of hyper-vigilance. I could have no routine, no way to structure my days. And some nights I was unable to get any sleep at all, so I would fall asleep randomly during the day, making it unable for me to fall asleep at night, fueling the cycle.

Now, a year and a half later, I typically sleep a lot better, though I do sometimes still struggle. How did I learn to sleep no matter how I was feeling, how my nervous system was feeling? The tools that I used and continue to use have differed depending on the moment, on my body and mind at the time, and different things help at different times. Yet I will share some of the things that have helped me the most so that one or more of my tools could be of some use to you or someone else.

Usually, my inability to sleep is because my body or mind or both are anxious or stressed. Being anxious or stressed could be about something specific, like an interview or more general, like housing or career uncertainty, or missing someone important in my life. In this case, my nervous system does not feel completely safe or able to relax, a little bit on guard at all times. Hence the inability for my body to fall asleep.

The priority becomes to ground my nervous system, to feel safe again. This means allowing myself to relax despite the uncertainty. This can take a few different forms. 

  1. Hanging out with a friend and talking through things, feeling heard and seen
  2. Reconnecting with nature (going for a walk in the park with a lot of nature, immersing myself in the present, like in Riverside Park or Central Park)
  3. Meditating + Reflecting on thoughts and emotions
  4. Deep Restorative Yoga (even at home, with my mat)
  5. EFT / Tapping
  6. Breathwork with slow, long inhales and slow, longer exhales
  7. Essential Oils to ground myself in the present with a calming scent (lavender is amazing for this)
  8. Soothing Calming Tea (chamomile, for example)

These all help me to feel held and heard. Specifically, for meditating, I will attempt to discern the emotions that my body feels and to soothe my body on my own, through different tools after I identify how my body is feeling. Most of these can be found here, under my Resources page. Those that have helped me the most are EFT / tapping and breathwork that focuses on slow, long inhales and even longer exhales. More of a focus on breathing slowly and long than deeply, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system and regulates your nervous system (described extensively in the book Breath, also located under my Resources page).

Another way I will allow my emotions and thoughts to feel heard is to focus on not pushing uncomfortable sensations away but accepting them, on meditating on them and reflecting on their lessons. For example, if I am stressed about an interview, why am I stressed? Is it the fear of not having financial security? And then I talk to myself, reminding myself that my emotions and thoughts are valid, their goals to serve me and to help me, not to hurt me. By hearing my thoughts, and allowing them to be hear, they get quieter. I often will plan on when I will deal with the thoughts: for example, say I want to do something for the next day, then I will plan a specific time at which I will take care of that the next day, so that I don’t feel like it will be forgotten and that it will keep stressing me out.

Overall, I try to tackle my nervous system from 2 different approaches: from a cognitive perspective, reframing things with my mind to allow my body and mind to relax, and from a somatic perspective, meaning from making my body feel safe to begin to allow both my mind and body to relax. The tools I use listed above usually fall under one of those.

Sometimes, if my nervous system is really activated, I will even turn to certain medications or supplements. I have tried a few different ones, including Benadryl (allergy medicine that also makes you drowsy and can help you sleep) and melatonin (natural chemical in body that helps you sleep) when I really can’t sleep.

Posted: 05-03-2023