Many adolescents experience some sort of trauma in their lives. While trauma can include physical, verbal, or sexual abuse, adolescents can also experience trauma by witnessing events that cause distress. Frequently, these traumatic experiences can cause issues falling asleep and staying asleep. However, for adolescents to heal from trauma, they need to get adequate sleep on a regular basis. Getting a sufficient amount of quality sleep helps adolescents to process memories and improve overall mental health. By working with health care professionals, adolescents can improve their sleep by undergoing trauma treatment, working on mental health issues, and creating new routines around sleep.
Effect of Trauma on Sleep
When an adolescent experiences trauma, they are impacted in many ways. This often leads to difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep due to nightmares or frequent wake-ups. However, each adolescent will have their own experience and will face different challenges depending on multiple variables such as age, type of trauma, and predisposition.
Experiencing trauma causes physiological changes in individuals of all ages, including adolescents. These changes are a response to trauma. In a survival sense, this is very helpful because it cues the brain and body to be prepared for danger. However, after the event has passed, ideally, the body and mind will be able to shift back to feeling safe.
When the physical arousal does not diminish, it becomes very hard to relax as the body does not feel safe. However, sleep is naturally consolidated into times and places when a person feels safe. Therefore, the physiological reaction to trauma causes changes that make it difficult for adolescents to fall asleep. This leads to many sleepless nights that create fatigue, lack of focus, and many other mental and physical health challenges.
Sleeping enough entails being able to fall asleep and stay asleep. However, after adolescents experience trauma, having nightmares and waking up regularly through the night becomes more common. While this experience will be unique for each individual, these disruptions change the type of sleep they are getting.
One theory that helps shine a light on these sleep disturbances is the “threat simulation theory” regarding dreaming. According to this theory, after events that are or feel threatening, the part of the brain that assesses and manages threats increases its activation. According to research, this is one reason why many adolescents who experience trauma struggle to stay asleep, as this activation increases their chances of nightmares which they may or may not remember. These nightmares commonly cause them to suddenly wake up.
Importance of Sleep in Healing From Trauma
When an adolescent is struggling with trauma, they experience symptoms of ongoing distress like anxiety or fear. Additionally, unprocessed trauma can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which leads to intrusive thoughts, triggers, and memories associated with the traumatic event. Therefore, when an adolescent is healing from trauma, they need to both process their memories and decrease their feelings of distress. Sleep can help with both.
Consolidation of Memories
The consolidation of memories can be thought of as memories or experiences being organized and woven into a person’s understanding of life. Adolescents, and individuals of all ages, process memories in several ways, one of which is sleep. Research has found that during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, individuals consolidate emotionally toned memories. These are the memories that have emotions attached to them. Therefore, during sleeping hours, these memories are processed and separated from their emotional tone. This results in decreased reactivity to the memory.
Experiencing consistent distress is exhausting. While distress is a natural and healthy response during dangerous situations, for many adolescents, it is persistent after trauma. Therefore, an important part of healing is finding ways to decrease distress.
Sleep is one way that helps adolescents heal from the distress caused by trauma. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an inadequate amount of sleep increases an individual’s risk of frequent distress. Therefore, when adolescents improve their sleep, they are more likely to feel less distress, which can help them heal from trauma.
How Adolescents Can Improve Sleep
Improving sleep quality and quantity can feel daunting, especially for adolescents. However, there are several simple and effective ways that can help. First, getting an adequate amount of exercise helps adolescents to burn off some energy during the day. This helps them to feel more tired and relaxed when they head to bed.
Additionally, adolescents can begin to build healthy habits by creating a bedtime routine. This will look different for each individual; however, it often includes turning off electronics 30-60 minutes before bed and finding a way to relax. Many adolescents need to try different options until they find a routine that is helpful for them.
Sleep is often disrupted for adolescents who have experienced trauma that causes insomnia or nightmares. However, improving sleep quality and quantity is necessary for adolescents to heal. For adolescents who have experienced trauma, it is important for them to build new and healthy habits that help them to heal. This includes finding methods that improve their sleep. At Sustain Recovery, we work with adolescents who struggle with trauma, mental health disorders, and addiction. We help our clients create life skills that will help them heal and manage life into adulthood. To learn more about our programs and levels of care, call us today at (949) 407-9052 and speak with a member of our staff.