All the Little Monsters: PTSD, Sleep and Me
by Ken Scholes
“I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed.” ― David Benioff, City of Thieves
These words from David Benioff ring true for me and, if they’re tipped over on their side, I think they become self-fulfilling prophecy. Getting a good night’s sleep gives us what we need to scrub our brains, sweep clean the skull and deal with all the little monsters. Whether it’s a stressful day or a pesky bug, a solid night of sleep is the Great Restorer.
Of course, as it goes in life, those very things that sleep could help us with can also get in the way. I had my first significant brush with insomnia back in my mid-twenties. It showed up with my first significant brush with depression. At the time, I didn’t realize that what I was really dealing with was a complex form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder–and that sleep disruption and depression were common symptoms.
Now, over twenty years later, I’ve experienced quite a bit of those sleep disruptions off and on. Racing thoughts that keep me from falling asleep. Waking up too early from anxiety playing out in my sleep. Going through the day sluggish and fatigued despite what seemed a full night’s rest.
My first indicator that my PTSD symptoms are resurging is my sleep. Once I start waking up around 2am with a wet pillow or wet sheets, I know my fight or flight is kicking into gear probably from night terrors or unremembered nightmares. All the little monsters coming out of the trunk kept back there in my amygdala. At its worst, I’d wake up with a strong sense of agitation and foreboding, still exhausted despite the sleep I had, ready to run away or kick ass and take names.
Some of the ways I’ve learned to cope are no brainers. Avoid caffeine at night and avoid over-caffeinating in general. Get regular exercise. Get medical help not just for the PTSD but also the sleep. And pay attention to the rest of your body, not just your PTSD symptoms. Because sometimes, more than one thing is costing you sleep. Combine PTSD with untreated sleep apnea, for instance, and you’re really set up to fail. And possibly cut your life short by twenty years.
But there are other tricks that I’ve picked up along the way. Crazy home remedies that have worked more than once. For example, if I can’t get back to sleep a really cold glass of water–or a spoonful of orange sherbet–can sometimes get me back to sleep. Or if I’m struggling to fall asleep, doing some easy mindfulness exercises like picking out every sound I hear and recounting it to myself–the car on the highway, the creak of the floorboard, the hum of my CPAP machine. Or picking out each physical sensation that I feel–the coldness of the sheet on my left foot, the feeling of the pillow against my ear. All while breathing deep and slow. It’s worked much better for me than counting sheep. And sometimes, there’s nothing like a cup of warm milk and a Hart to Hart rerun to knock me out.
Probably my best trick–which really only works at home–is to have a fresh bed ready elsewhere that I can crawl into. I read somewhere that Winston Churchill kept several beds nearby and moved to a new bed as needed to combat his insomnia. I tried it back in the days of my first brush with insomnia and sure enough, it worked for me, too. Sometimes you just have to start over, especially if your sheets and pillow are soaked through.
Whatever it is that keeps you from sleep, steer into it and solve it. Learn to take naps when you need to. Pay attention to how rested you feel. If you know your sleep is being disrupted but don’t know why, talk to a doctor. You may need to go in for a sleep study. Trust me, you won’t regret it. Especially if it leads to you getting the rest that you need. Good, regular sleep is an amazing ally
when it comes to our well-being.
Hey…I think it’s nap time now.
Sleep well and sweet dreams to you all.
|Author and PTSD sufferer
Ken Scholes is the critically acclaimed author of four novels and
over forty short stories. His fantasy series, The Psalms of Isaak, is
published in the US by Tor Books. Ken is also an outspoken patient
advocate for people with PTSD as a result of early childhood trauma.
You can read more about Ken, his writing and his PTSD at