Understanding PTSD and the Effects on Sleep

PTSD can impact a person in many ways

Written by Joselyne John, RN

PTSD stands for post-traumatic stress disorder. This mental health problem affects some people after they have experienced or witnessed a traumatic or life-threatening event. These events might include a natural disaster such as a tornado, or they might include a combat situation, a car accident, or a physical assault. Treatment options are available for people suffering PTSD.

PTSD and Sleep

What Is PTSD?

It’s completely normal to experience upsetting feelings or to have vivid memories after a negative event. Some people feel anxious or on edge, and sleep can also be affected after a traumatic event. It’s also normal to have trouble engaging in typical daily activities after an upsetting event, so going to work or school might be difficult for a while. Most people start to feel better after several weeks or a few months, though. If anxiety, sleep disruptions, and other symptoms last more than a few months, PTSD might be to blame.

What Can Cause PTSD?

Any situation or experience that is life-threatening for you or someone else can lead to PTSD. These traumatic events include military experiences and combat, a physical or sexual assault, learning about an unexpected or violent injury or death of a loved one, a serious accident, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or child abuse. The event might be something that happens to you or it could also be something you witnessed happening to someone else. These types of trauma typically involve a complete loss of control over the events, and people usually feel significant fear.

Sleep and PTSD fact

What Are the Symptoms of PTSD?

Most people experiencing PTSD describe four different types of symptoms, but these symptoms won’t be the same for everyone.

  1. Memories of the event tend to happen repeatedly, and these memories tend to feel very vivid and frightening. These flashbacks might make you feel like the event is happening again. Sometimes new things will happen that trigger memories of the trauma, too.
  2. People with PTSD often want to avoid situations or people that remind them of the trauma. It’s typical for someone with PTSD to want to stay busy to avoid thinking or talking about the trauma.
  3. PTSD can lead to overall negativity, causing people to feel depressed and to lose interest in life. It’s also common to feel guilty or ashamed about the trauma, as if they should have done something to prevent it.
  4. Someone with PTSD may have a hard time relaxing, which is known as being in a state of hyperarousal. This keyed-up feeling can make it difficult to sleep and concentrate, and irritability is also common. Some people turn to drugs or alcohol to cope.

What Do I Do if I Have Symptoms of PTSD?

After a traumatic event, give yourself some time to work through your emotions to feel more like yourself again. If a few months have passed and you are still having trouble sleeping or are feeling anxious or depressed to the point where your daily life is disrupted, consult your physician or speak with a mental health care provider. You don’t have to live with these symptoms; there are treatment options.

What Other Problems Do People With PTSD Have?

People who struggle with PTSD may also struggle with other mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. It’s also common for people to have thoughts about self-harm. Some people also have problems with alcohol or drug abuse. You might have issues with your personal relationships, with your physical health, and at work, too.

Where Can I Go to Get Help?

The first step toward getting help for PTSD is often seeing your primary physician, who can refer you to a mental health care provider who specializes in PTSD treatment. Veterans can get help through a local Veterans Affairs office, which can connect them with a VA PTSD program. Ideally, a provider who specializes in PTSD will find the best treatment options for each individual; treatment may include several types of therapy, such as psychotherapy that focuses on the trauma, prolonged exposure therapy that helps desensitize the patient to reminders of the trauma, support groups, and medication.

Other Resources for PTSD