Could your sleep apnoea be connected to PTSD? (And 7 ways to get a better night’s sleep)
It’s probably no surprise that PTSD can wreak havoc with your sleeping patterns. Hyperarousal and anxiety can make it harder to fall asleep, while sensitivity to the slightest sound can cause you to wake up frequently during the night. Some people suffer from nightmares, while depression can cause others to sleep more than usual. But did you know that PTSD is also linked the sleep apnoea?
What is sleep apnoea?
Sleep apnoea (or apnea) is when your breathing stops and starts during the night. You might snore excessively and wake up gasping or choking. Poor sleep quality can result in tiredness, mood swings and headaches during the day.
Research shows that sleep apnoea and PTSD are commonly found together (this is known as comorbidity). Although there’s no clear evidence that sleep apnoea causes PTSD or vice versa, there’s evidence that one can be a risk factor for the other and potentially make symptoms worse. According to one study of people with PTSD:
“Insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness even within a month after a traumatic event are important predictors for the development of PTSD… sleep apnea may even intensify symptoms of PTSD, including sleeplessness and nightmares.”
Untreated sleep apnoea can lead to heart and liver problems, high blood pressure and diabetes. Mild sleep apnoea doesn’t always need treatment, but in more serious cases, doctors may recommend the use of a night-time gum shield to open your airways while you sleep, or a CPAP machine, which pumps air through a mask over your mouth or nose while you sleep.
Treating sleep apnoea and PTSD
Researchers hope that when someone has both sleep apnoea and PTSD or anxiety, treating one condition could help improve both. Matthew Walker, professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley, and author of Why We Sleep, says:
“People who are anxious by nature are the same people who will suffer the greatest harm from sleep deprivation. By restoring good quality sleep in people suffering from anxiety, we may be able to help ameliorate their excessive worry.”
Whatever your sleeping problems, practising good sleep hygiene could help you feel more rested.
7 ways to get a better night’s sleep
- Stick to a regular routine. Try to go to bed and get up in the morning at the same time each day, so your body and mind start to wind down when it’s nearing bedtime.
- Eat well and avoid alcohol. Eating a huge meal before bed can send your digestive system into overdrive, making you more likely to wake up during the night. Alcohol and caffeine can also interfere with your sleep, so if you can, try to keep these to a minimum. We know you’ve heard it a million times before, but a healthy diet really can help improve sleep!
- Move more. Regular exercise can help improve overall health and has been shown to improve sleep. If you’re able to, even a short walk can help you feel calm so you find it easier to fall asleep.
- Create a sleep-friendly environment. Set yourself up for a successful sleep by making your bedroom dark, cool and quiet if you’re able to. If your hypervigilance affects you at night, have a lamp next to your bed that you can switch it on easily if you need to. Try to avoid too much screen time right before you go to bed.
- Practice mindfulness. If you have a tendency to replay your worries just as you’re trying to fall asleep, a mindfulness practice might help. This could include journaling, relaxing yoga, or a meditation ritual to calm the mind before bed.
- Try our tips to reduce nightmares PTSD sufferers experience nightmares much more frequently than the general population (52-96% compared to 3% ) – but we’ve got lots of tips about how to reduce these here.
- Consider using a weighted blanket Not only does a weighted blanket calm your nervous system and provide a feeling of comfort, but the pressure of a weighted blanket also helps to encourage serotonin production.
Find out more about PTSD and its treatments. Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.
- Lettieri, C. J., & Williams, S. G. (2017). The PTSD-OSA Paradox: They Are Commonly Associated and They Worsen Outcomes, but Treatment Nonadherence Is Common and the Therapeutic Effect Limited. What Are Clinicians To Do?. Journal of clinical sleep medicine : JCSM : official publication of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 13(1), 5–6. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.6370
- Gilbert, K. S., Kark, S. M., Gehrman, P., & Bogdanova, Y. (2015). Sleep disturbances, TBI and PTSD: Implications for treatment and recovery. Clinical psychology review, 40, 195–212. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2015.05.008
- Sleep Foundation
- Anxiety and sleep apnea: The sleep/health connection
- Sleep Problems When You Have PTSD
- Exercising for Better Sleep
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Treatments for PTSD
It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
Traumatic events can be very difficult to come to terms with, but confronting and understanding your feelings and seeking professional help is often the only way of effectively treating PTSD. You can find out more in the links below, or here.