Sleep can be elusive following a sexual assault for many reasons. You may have a lot of anxiety causing you to toss and turn. Sexual assaults can also trigger bouts of depression in people who regularly struggle with the disease. I have also worked with people who were afraid to sleep because sleep is a very vulnerable state of being. They may logically know that being assaulted again is unlikely, but their body has not yet caught up to that realization.
Some common symptoms of post-traumatic stress may be experiencing symptoms of hyper-vigilance, or being on high alert all the time. This may look like being unable to go to sleep without a partner or a trusted pet. You might be methodically checking locks and doors several times and losing prime sleep time due to this routine. Another common symptom of post-traumatic stress can be nightmares. Your mind may re-experience parts of the assault while it is trying to process what has happened to you. However, this processing will get interrupted because scary dreams often jolt us awake. It like putting a penny on a record player and watching the song skip back to the beginning. Therapy can help you remove the penny. In the meantime, just improving sleep can relieve a lot of stress and improve your ability to function in your day. Here are some tips to gaining back an hour or two of precious ZZZs.
1. Don't Count Sheep
This is one of the biggest sleep myths. Counting sheep in your head, or counting anything, is over-stimulating. Similarly, rehearsing what you plan to say or get done the next day only serves to exasperate insomnia. If you want to get to sleep try concentrating on light reading or listening to a mindfulness exercise on Youtube instead.
2. Don't Lie Awake In Bed For Too Long
If you cannot fall asleep in under an hour, get up. If you lay in bed, your mind will learn to associate the bed as a place of failure, as a place for work, and the idea of falling asleep will become stressful. When you get up, you may chose to take a short walk around the block. Walking around the block may not be an option for you if your neighborhood is not safe at night or if sidewalks disappear. In which case, make a cup of non-caffeinated tea or take a relaxing shower instead. Then try again to fall asleep. If anxious energy is keeping you up, you might try a light exercise like 20 sets of push-ups in an effort to tire yourself out. However, you should not do a full workout routine because too much exercise may have the effect of waking you up. Ultimately, practice instead getting into bed only when you feel tired (or horny).
3. Don't Go To Bed TOO Early
Trying to go to bed really early is likely to only force you to lay in bed restless until your natural Circadian Rythm tells you to go to sleep. Supposing you do fall asleep early your body is more likely to wake up too early in response. Stick to your bedtime.
4. Don't Strive For 8 HOurs
The recommended 8 hours is not right for everyone. Some people feel well rested with 6 or 9. First, average how many hours of sleep you got in your childhood as an approximator. Second, factor in how many hours of sleep seemed right for you in adulthood before experiencing sleep difficulties. Third, consider how many hours your get by awakening naturally without an alarm. Finally, judge your needed hours of sleep based on what it takes to not feel sleepy
5. DOn't Take Care of Business
Trying to clean a room, practice for a presentation, or study will likely excite you to the point of not being able to sleep. It is also likely to increase anxiety. Get to work earlier then give yourself permission to put away all that isn't finished within an hour of your bedtime.
6. Don't Turn On So Many Lights
Even when insomnia is getting the better of you, do not turn on the overhead lights. Use night lights, soft lamps, and minimal lights when trying to prepare for bed. Keep your phone and tablets dim. Read on kindles and paper copy books, if you must read at all so that the computer lights don't throw off your Circadian Rhythm.
7. Don't Beat Yourself Up
Our Inner Critic voice has a way of convincing us that even sleep, a natural occurrence, is something we're failing at. You will get to sleep eventually, just like you got to sleep before. Every time you implement even one new tool you are doing exactly what you need to take care of yourself. It is best to practice three or so Good Sleep Hygiene tools well than to try to change dozens of ingrained habits all at once.
8. Don't Eat Spicy or Heavy Foods
The more your body is focused on digesting difficult foods, the less it will be focused on processing material from your day. That means all the new information you crammed for a test is slipping out your ear and into the pillow like water cupped in a hand. It means that your brain cannot work on healing from and making sense of traumatic events. Eat instead a banana, nuts or something else simple and high in fiber or amino acids, if you get hungry at all.
9. Don't Veg Out in front of the Computer or TV
Most of us do not have the willpower to refrain from binge-watching the newest Netflix find. Any exciting shows are likely to keep you up and excite you more than relax you in bed. Also, TVs, smartphones, tablets, and laptops have lights that throw off our Circadian Rhythms. The only exception is if you have been conditioned over years, to go to sleep with the TV on. Your body is more likely to experience it as background noise, something soothing, cueing you for sleep.
10. Don't Drink ALcohol
Alcohol may help you get to sleep but it interrupts the brain waves needed for deep sleep- REM. You're also more likely to awaken more frequently throughout the night when relying on alcohol as a sleep aid. It dehydrates you and slows digestions.
Overall leave your worries at the door. If after practicing these tips regularly for at least a month, you still have not gained back an hour of sleep, then you may need psychotherapy in order better learn to leave poor habits and poor thinking patterns at the bedroom door. You may also want to consult a physician for medical issues such as sleep apnea, traumatic brain injuries, and insomnia.
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