Tips for a Restful Nights Sleep
“Sleep is the best medication” – Dalai Lama
Many people have trouble sleeping at times. However, this is more likely to be a problem for individuals following a trauma, such as sexual abuse or sexual assault. Sleep problems following a trauma are often attributed to hyperarousal and safety concerns. The term hyperarousal refers to feeling keyed up, jittery, or always alert and on the lookout for danger. This may also include problems concentrating and being startled very easily. Sleep disturbances following a trauma are also often a result of nightmares. These can be experienced as more than just a “bad dream.” It may feel like the sexual abuse or assault is really happening again during sleep. This can feel very frightening and it is likely that frequent nightmares would cause an individual to feel apprehensive about sleeping. Following a trauma, people tend to keep thinking about what happened in order to “digest” it, just like your stomach has to work to digest a big meal. Nightmares are one way of digesting what happened.
Examples of sleep difficulties and disturbances that may be experienced include:
- Problems getting to sleep, such as lying away and not being able to fall asleep
- Problems staying asleep such as waking up early in the morning and through the night
- Poor quality of sleep and not feeling refreshed by the sleep that occurred
- Fear of going to sleep and/or experiencing nightmares
- Using alcohol or other drugs to numb emotional and physical pain which may exacerbate sleep problems
Sleep is important for restoring physical and mental health, especially for trauma survivors. There can be a vicious cycle of anxiety, stress, sleep problems, and nightmares. There are times when medication is needed to fall asleep but most of the time we have the resources within us to help promote a restful night’s sleep. Drugs do not treat the underlying sleep problems.
Tips for Improving Sleep:
- Sleep in a location where you will feel most rested and safe. While the bedroom is optimal, it may not be possible to rest there soon after the trauma if you experienced violence in that room.
- Create an environment in which you can sleep well. It should be safe, quiet, cool and comfortable. While it often helps to sleep in a dark room, if keeping a nightlight on helps bring about a more safe feeling, then consider keeping the room dimly lit. It may also help to have a friend or family member stay in the room, or perhaps in a nearby room, while you are sleeping. Some people need background noise to fall asleep. If you do, consider trying soft music, a sound machine of waves or rain, or a fan to replace things like the television.
- Limit your caffeine intake. Drinking beverages with caffeine in the evening will affect your sleep patterns. If you have to have them at all limit them to the day time.
- Avoid alcohol close to bedtime; it can lead to disrupted sleep later in the night.
- Exercise regularly but avoid it a few hours before bedtime.
- Finish eating at least 2-3 hours before your regular bedtime.
- Engage in a relaxing, non-alerting activity at bedtime such as reading, listening to music, restful yoga poses, meditation, soaking in a warm bath, or a cup of herbal tea. Avoid activities that are mentally or physically stimulating, including discussion about a traumatic experience, right before bedtime.
Yoga Poses that Promote Sleep:
Taking time to find transition from the business of each day to the quiet, peaceful time of rest each night can be difficult for a lot of people. Yoga is a natural, organic way of moving into this stillness. Each of the following poses can be done in bed or on the floor in a quiet, clean space. These poses are restorative and release the stress of the day that will bring a sense of peace and calm before drifting off to sleep. They can be done as a sequence or alone. Yoga is accessible through practice and self-compassion. Enjoy.
Gentle Twists – sit in a comfortable cross-legged position. Feel your sits bones connect to the floor or bed and lengthen gently through your spine. Take your right hand and place it behind you, your left hand comes to the outside of your right knee and gently twist to the right. Inhale and lengthen your spine; exhale gently twist open. Stay with this rhythm for a few breaths feeling the stress of your day wring out of your spine. Now twist to the other side.
Forward Fold – Straighten your legs out in front of you, gently flex your feet. Lengthen through your spine and fold forward gently. Breathe. If you feel stiffness in your spine or hips, fill your lap with pillows. Even if you do not feel stiffness you may want to add pillows for your body and head to rest. Allow yourself to be completely comfortable and abandon all effort. Benefits: loosens the hips, lengthens the spine and quiets the brain.
Child’s Pose – Begin by sitting on your knees and shins in a low kneel. Place a couple of pillows in front of your knees, bring your big toes together and widen your knees and fold forward laying your chest and head on the pillows in front of you. Your bottom might not get all the way down and that is okay. Just enjoy lengthening forward while letting yourself melt into your pillow. Your arms can stretch out in front of you or rest along side your body. Benefits: the back releases, shoulders melt and the mind begins to relax and restore.
Reclined Cobbler’s Pose – Feel comfortable in using as many pillows as you would like in the pose. Begin by lying down on your back with pillows within your reach. Bring the soles of the feet together and draw the feet close to your groin, allowing your knees to fall apart. Place pillows underneath the knees as they fall out to the side in a diamond shape. You may want to place another pillow under your head, keeping your neck long. If you feel too much intensity in the groin place another pillow under your knees. Allow your arms to fall over your head with your fingertips gently touching. Allow your chest to expand open with each breath. Feel the fullness of the inhale followed by the release of the exhale as you take several slow rounds of breath allowing yourself to further let go in each moment. Benefits: opens the hips and thighs, pelvis and belly release, chest expands.
Legs Up the Wall – This pose can be done on the floor against the wall or on the bed against the wall. Sit facing the wall, then pivot over so your side is about a foot away from the wall. With you side parallel to the wall, lie back down, swing your legs towards the sky and up the wall. Try it a few times to find the position that is comfortable for you. Adjust your bottom closer or further away from the wall, depending on what feels right. You can place a pillow or folded blanket under your pelvis to further open your chest if you choose. Your hands can lie next to your body, fold onto your heart-center or over your head. Breathe. To come out of this pose, bend your knees into your chest and roll gently onto your right side. Lay here and gently fall asleep or move into the next pose. Benefits: Opens the chest, relieving any stress, refreshing your heart and lungs. A great pose if you are on your feet all day. This pose quiets the mind and body. For women, this pose should not be done while on your period or during pregnancy.
Reclined Relaxation Pose – This pose can be your last pose before drifting off to sleep. Stack pillows and blankets until you find the most pleasing position. You can use as many or as little as you like. Sit with the stack of pillows and blankets against the back of your hips and lay back. You can also place a rolled-up blanket or pillows under your knees. Take the time to adjust the heights of your stack to find the position that allows for comfort and openness. Allow your arms to fall open to the sides to open your chest. Simply let go. Allow your body to relax into the pillows and blankets and let gravity do all the work. Breathe.
Erin Heltsley, MA, LPP