I have so many problems going to sleep at night. Even if I fall asleep, I will be awake within two or three hours. It’s just the loneliest time of the day and I hate it every time it happens. I’m a survivor of sexual abuse and the memories and bad feelings seem to flood my mind as I lie there in the dark. Can you help me? ~ Sleepless in South Carolina.
Dear Sleepless, I do hope you are seeing a counselor who specializes in sexual abuse. You past is definitely harming your present life, and that’s always the time to seek out professional help.
I would say your sexual abuse has everything to do with your insomnia,especially if the abuse happened at night. Did the abuse normally happen at night? (You didn’t say.) If so, to fall asleep meant that your guard was down. Your defenses were down. You were unprepared to protect yourself. In other words, sleep equaled vulnerability.
- The problem with chronic sleep difficulties is that it literally alters your brain chemistry – it changes how your brain works. The research on this is fascinating. Trauma changes your brain chemistry.
- Trauma impacts your sleep patterns.
- Disturbed sleep patterns change how your brain works.
Another problem common to abuse survivors is dreams. Disturbing or extremely stimulating dreams can abruptly end sleep. Dreams can leave one traumatized for days. Wild dreams can be traumatic, which alters your brain chemistry, which impacts your sleep patterns, which . . . well, you get the idea.
Sleep becomes something like skimming stones on the water. Rather than diving deep into the restorative sleep stages that keep you healthy, your sleep is often just barely under the surface of awake – like going under anesthesia. That’s not the kind of sleep that helps you to function better. It’s almost a tease. You get just enough to go through the motions of being awake the next day, but still feel like a truck hit you. This is often an aftermath of living through abuse or trauma.
Also, if you’re living in a stressful work environment, too many responsibilities, difficult relationships, or financial stress. the “can’t sleep blues” become a regular and frustrating part of your life.
I’m not a big fan of medication, but there are times when pharmaceutical help can give you the urgently needed sleep you require. For many people, a sleep aid is the only way it’s going to happen. Of course, you must do this under the care of a physician, and then you must carefully calculate how much time you can dedicate to sleep before you take a sleep aid. If you don’t have eight hours, you should probably avoid it unless you still want to feel miserable the following morning.
Sleep experts recommend that at least one hour prior to bedtime, you turn off television, computers, video games, and stimulating music. I’ve learned I cannot watch programs like “Law and Order” before going to bed. My mind has been stimulated and my emotions affected by the crime and the steps to solving it. I need something silly, like “I Love Lucy” to relax before going to bed.
It’s also important that you do quiet activities such as reading sacred texts such as the Bible, deep breathing, slow stretching, or a wam (not hot) bath.
Of course, that’s the ideal world – which most of us don’t live in. Most of us live with noise, responsibilities, people – big and small – and overwhelming stress. Quiet time before bed just might not be a luxury you have right now.
Sleep experts also recommend that if you wake up in the middle of the night, rather than getting up to watch television, read, or work, you remain in bed. Keep the lights off, lay on your back and systematically tense and relax every muscle group (starting with your toes and working your way up), do deep breathing, and discipline your thoughts to stay focused on your breathing and relaxation.
I’ve found one of the best sedatives I have access to is singing old hymns (in my mind) and prayer. There’s nothing like a good conversation with God – you know, that kind of nuzzling conversation – that will put me to sleep in a heartbeat!
And then it happens. The sun starts to come up just as you are hit with overwhelming sleepiness. You close your eyes and experience some of the best sleep ever because you feel safe. Your sleep is so deep – so wonderful – that you are actually aware that you’re magnificently, deeply asleep.
Actively find ways to quiet your mind, both before sleep, and when you awaken in the middle of the night. Count your blessings, just as you would count sheep. Start with the obvious: you have hands, feet, eyes, ears, etc.
There was a period of time when I composed a song in the dark. It was called “God will You hold me?” I felt so safe I drifted off to deep slumber. Other times, I have thanked God over and over for the protective angels surrounding me, and that made me feel safe. Ask God to bring scripture to your mind and recite it (in your mind) over and over. There’s power in the Word of God!
Again, if you have not seen a counselor who specializes in sexual abuse, please get some referrals and check them out. You need a wise counselor! Use your search engine, to start. One of the sights that offers help is Counseling for Christians.
Nothing but blessing to you, Sleepless!
2008 April Lorier