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Read this when you can't sleep at night

anxiety sleep trauma

(warning: some domestic violence-related content)

I spent a large portion of my adult life with massive sleep disturbances.

I’d crawl into bed and lay awake half the night, tossing and turning, doing the whole, “if I just fall asleep now, I’ll get 6 hours (5, 4, 3, etc)… that’s not so bad” thing in my head.

If I managed to fall asleep and somehow woke up in the middle of the night, I’d lay there for hours.

Tossing and turning. Thoughts racing, mind very much unable to shut the hell up, and my hips gently rocking back and forth--a weird self-soothing habit that developed at some point but never really helped very much.

It was so frustrating and drove me nuts.

I tried allll the over the counter sleep aids. None of them did a thing.

I tried allll the prescription sleep aids. At one point, my doctor finally gave me one that worked but I’d wake up feeling like, well, like I’d been drugged.

It wasn’t a long-term solution.

Now I fall asleep within minutes of going to bed and 99% of the time, I sleep like a log the entire night. If I do happen to wake up, I’m able to fall back to sleep again within minutes.

Let me tell you, after years of insomnia, it’s pure bliss.

You’re probably wondering what I did to “fix” my sleep issue.

Well, I didn’t DO anything, nor did I “fix” it. I just went away.

When I began understanding the underlying cause of it and started working on healing that, the sleep issues just… faded away.

I didn’t even really set out to understand the underlying causes of it or even try to “fix it”.

I set out to recover from bulimia, binge eating, depression, and anxiety.

And sooo many other random things just happened to come to the surface and got “fixed” during that process.

Like the sleep thing for example.

I grew up with an abusive, alcoholic father.

If he wasn’t home when I went to bed, I’d lay there terrified I’d wake up to him coming home drunk and beating on my mother.

If he was home and he was drunk, I’d lay in bed listening to him screaming at and beating her. For hours and hours.

And I’d lay there listening to it all because who can sleep with that going on in the room next to them? I’d lay there for hours. Every muscle in my little body was frozen stiff, ready to run, wanting to do something to make it stop, yet paralyzed. Terrified to even breathe, never mind move because I was scared if he heard me, he’d remember I was there and come after me next.

Night after night. Year after year as I was growing up.

When my mother finally left him, I stuffed all those memories down. Blocked them out. All that’s in the past, I thought. I don’t want to dwell on the painful past. 

So I went on with my life, convinced I was “over it” all. Besides, he never actually beat me so it wasn’t even that big a deal, right?

Wrong.

As I eventually realized, we don’t just “get over” past trauma.

And though I may not have been physically beaten, it most definitely caused trauma.

Gabor Mate, renowned speaker & best-selling author on topics including addiction, stress, & childhood development, describes trauma as not what happens to you but what happens inside of you as a result of what happens to you.

What happened inside of me during those nights of laying in bed, afraid, feeling completely unsafe, and unable to sleep as a child? It programmed me with fear.

My body (and brain) ended up basically living in a constant state of fight, flight, freeze.

I lived in constant protection mode. Tense. Unable to ever fully relax or feel calm.

Imagine you’ve just been chased by a tiger. Your heart is racing, you’re breathing heavy. Your body is on full alert, ready to start running again at any second if it comes back.

Now imagine trying to fall asleep in that state.

There’s no way, right?

Now imagine that every single time you just start to relax again, the tiger comes back and you have to run again. If that cycle continues for years, your body is going to get pretty used to staying in that fear-based, ready-to-run state all the time.

You’re never going to feel like you can relax because the tiger has come back so many times.

I think of it now a little bit like that.

I had experienced something scary. Because it happened over and over again, my body got used to it and learned to always be prepared for it.

Tense. Scared. Always looking for the tiger and trying to protect against it.

That’s what happened every time I’d try to fall asleep.

But until I started working on digging into my patterns and healing, I had no idea. I was just always tired (um, hello.. of course, you’re always tired if you’re living in a constant state of being in protection mode and not sleeping) and always annoyed with myself that I couldn’t sleep at night.

Which didn’t help.

So whew. I identified the “problem”. Trauma-induced anxiety.

This is also where outside of the sleep disturbances, my generalized anxiety disorder and panic attacks came from.

The funny thing is, I didn’t even really put it together that the sleep issues were a result of the same thing until after my sleep issues just resolved on their own.

I was just digging into the anxiety and panic attacks and working on those.

The sleep issues also went away as those things improved and I realized exactly why.

Because the anxiety kept me from ever being able to fully relax.

Most advice for sleeping better involves things like don’t take your phone to bed, turn off electronic devices, exercise, move your clocks out of sight, don’t nap, use this pillow position, make your room conducive to sleep… etc.

And I’m sorry but all that crap annoyed the hell out of me. I tried it all and it was useless. It was useless because my body physically could not relax. No matter how many tricks I employed at bedtime, it was physically unable to do so.

I basically had to learn how.

It wasn’t easy nor was it a fast process but my goodness it’s glorious to just feel calm and actually be able to crawl into bed, close my eyes, breathe, relax and fall asleep.

Now you may be thinking, “this isn’t me, I didn’t have an alcoholic parent. I had a great childhood” and that may be the case.

But I’m sure you had some events that have caused fear or stress over the course of your life. We all do.

And what about now? How much of your day do you spend feeling stressed or overwhelmed? Have you ever turned your attention to your body and noticed whether or not it felt like it was relaxed.

Right now as you read this, check in with your jaw.

How does it feel? Calm and relaxed, or tight and clenched? What about your forehead, your brow, your eyes? Neck and shoulders? How are they feeling? Are they relaxed down, away from your ears? Or tight, tense, and pulled forward and towards your ears?

Exactly. You're just sitting here reading a post and that's the tension that's present in you. It doesn't typically magically vanish just because we crawl into bed.

If this resonates for you, you may be wondering where do you start?

I have a couple of easy tips to get you started.

Try noticing how your body feels the next time you crawl into bed. Try getting out of your head (where all those racing thoughts are) and bring your attention into your body, looking for and releasing the tension.

I found guided meditations to help a ton with this and in fact, I always break the sleep “rules” (because don’t tell me what to do 😉) and have my phone at my bedside so I can turn on my guided meditation when I crawl in.

I have recently uploaded a couple of meditations that might help over on Insight Timer. You can head over here to check them out or look for other meditations that you might enjoy.

If you try this, just make sure it shuts off on its own in case you end up falling asleep before it ends - like I always do.

Pausing often throughout the day to breathe and find moments of calm can be a tremendous help too because you’re less likely to be an absolute ball of stress and tension by the end of the day if you’re periodically managing it through the day.

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