PTSD and Sleep Deprivation

Surveys suggest that 70 to 90% of people with PTSD suffer from sleep deprivation, with veterans falling in the higher end of that range.

This inability to fall asleep or stay asleep often leads to difficulty dealing with daily life, whether you have PTSD or not. This article reviews the significance of the problem of sleep deprivation in veterans and their families but also offers some hope in the form of new treatments being developed.

Major causes of lack of sleep with PTSD include hyper-vigilance, nightmares, fear of going to sleep, guilt, substance abuse, stress, and physical and emotional pain.

Hyper-vigilance is due to the need to stay alert against potential danger. In the case of combat veterans, both training and experience underscore the necessity of being alert to stay alive. Once ingrained for several months or years, the habit of being constantly on one’s guard causes major difficulty in falling asleep.

Additionally, the brain’s activation of certain chemicals to assist alertness makes it challenging to go to sleep and remain asleep.

Nightmares and flashbacks are also significant complaints of those suffering from PTSD. Naturally, combat veterans are subject to many horrific events leading to nightmares and flashbacks, both of which interfere with sound sleep and cause the sufferer to postpone sleep to avoid the seemingly unavoidable bad dreams or flashbacks. This leads to unhealthy sleep patterns.

PTSD is not the only cause of sleep problems for veterans. Many veterans have suffered injuries while in combat, and residual pain from those injuries keeps them from sleeping well. Sometimes they also have guilt that they lived while friends in their unit died, guilt that they are a burden to their loved ones by not being their same selves after their military service.

Treatments being developed for sleep deprivation

The results of sleep deprivation are devastating but not surprising. Fatigue, increased panic attacks, depression, substance abuse, smoking, memory problems, impaired judgment, and suicidal thoughts are frequent results.

In other words, those who suffer from sleep deprivation are at more risk for medical problems and damaging behavior, often spiraling into a chicken-egg thing where it is hard to distinguish which problem is causing the others.  

Health professionals are trying many kinds of treatment, not only for PTSD itself but for the loss of sleep connected with it. Most of these treatments involve both medicine and counseling. One new medicine, for instance, Prazosin, has proved to help prevent nightmares for patients with PTSD.

In addition, two interesting studies are being further examined for validity. One showed that subjects given a sense of safety slept better than those given techniques to reduce fear. From that study, researchers concluded that sleep loss was less about fear and more about feeling safe. The second study showed that PTSD and subsequent sleep deprivation produced a vicious circle in which the lack of sleep either produced PTSD or made the existing problem worse. As a result of these two studies, counselors and physicians are concentrating on finding more ways to help their patients reduce stress and create personal environments that feel safer for them.

Sleep deprivation affects veteran families too

Although a veteran may try their best to hide sleep problems and handle the situation all on their own, it is impossible to hide sleep deprivation for long. Studies have shown that even a tiny amount of sleep disruption can affect mental functions. Although family members may not see their loved one awake when everyone else is asleep, they certainly see some of the symptoms.

Hypervigilance, for example, plays out in daily family life all the time. A new smoking habit or substance abuse is hard to hide. Fatigue and panic attacks may be happening in the workplace, interfering with continued employment.

The VA provides some insight into helpful tips for healthy sleep. You can read more here.

Next steps in dealing with PTSD or sleep deprivation

Whether you are a veteran or a concerned family member, it may be time to take some immediate steps to get help on two fronts: seeking an evaluation from a health care professional and applying for VA disability benefits if you know or suspect a connection to your military service.

If you are a veteran experiencing symptoms of PTSD that are causing difficulties in your life, contact us. We may have the answers you need. 

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