Breaking Free from the Vortex: Understanding Traumatic Thought Spirals at Bedtime
I know I shouldn’t do it. I know it isn’t the healthy, strong, positive, and tranquil way that is optimal for those oh-so-precious hours of rejuvenating sleep. And yet… every night without fail I do.
A few months ago I lost my niece, Tilly, a day after her 4th birthday. Now every night after a day full of distractions my mind has one reel that it insists on playing when my body is trying to lull itself into a peaceful slumber: the night she died. I replay every component of that night in lighting-fast but excruciating detail. Getting the initial call that Tilly was on her way to the hospital. The grip of my hands on my scooter handles as a road past the airport after my shift towards home. Feeling that undeniable pull to just get on a plane. And then of course the phone call and the two words that shattered my heart: “Tilly Died”.
Some things go so far outside the natural order that your biology actually fights its reality. Maybe I need to replay this trauma every night so that my mind can grasp that it is in fact real. This is in no way a unique occurrence. Many people experience trauma thought spirals when trying to fall asleep. So I went in search of some answers as to why we do this and how to try and break this vicious cycle in the future.
1. Hyperarousal and Stress Response: Traumatic events trigger the body's "fight or flight" response, releasing stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. When you're trying to relax and fall asleep, these stress hormones can still be circulating in your system, making it difficult to switch off the stress response. This heightened arousal can lead to intrusive and distressing thoughts associated with traumatic memories.
2. Processing and Integration: The brain often uses sleep as an opportunity to process and integrate experiences from the day, including traumatic ones. While you sleep, your brain sorts and consolidates memories, seeking to make sense of your experiences. In the case of trauma, this can manifest as intrusive thoughts or flashbacks.
3. Unresolved Emotions: Trauma can leave you with unresolved emotions and distressing thoughts. Your mind may replay these experiences as a way to process and come to terms with what happened. It's a way for your brain to try to understand and make sense of the traumatic event.
4. Nightmares: Trauma can lead to nightmares, which are vivid, distressing dreams that often involve a re-experiencing of the traumatic event. These nightmares can wake you up or cause you to remember and dwell on the traumatic experience when you're trying to sleep. This is something Belle, my dog, has helped me with over the years. She is trained to wake me up before these nightmares reach peak intensity.
5. Fear of Recurrence: Trauma can lead to a fear of recurrence or a sense of vulnerability. This fear can be heightened at night when you are alone in the dark, creating an environment where traumatic memories are more likely to surface.
It's important to note that replaying traumatic events before sleep is not necessarily a conscious choice or something that people want to happen. It's a natural response to the psychological and physiological impact of trauma. However, it can be distressing and disruptive to sleep, leading to symptoms of insomnia and contributing to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
What we can do
1. Establish a Relaxing Bedtime Routine: Create a calming pre-sleep ritual that signals to your body that it's time to relax. Engage in activities that promote relaxation, such as reading, taking a warm bath, practicing deep breathing exercises, or meditation. A consistent routine can help your body and mind transition into a restful state.
2. Limit Exposure to Triggers: Identify and minimize exposure to potential triggers that remind you of the traumatic event. This may include avoiding certain TV shows, movies, news, or discussions that bring back distressing memories.
3. Journaling: Keep a journal by your bedside to jot down your thoughts and feelings before sleep. Writing about your emotions can provide an outlet for processing your experiences and help reduce the need to replay them in your mind.
4. Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques: Practice mindfulness meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, or guided imagery to stay grounded in the present moment. These techniques can help shift your focus away from distressing thoughts.
5. Create a Safe Sleep Environment: Ensure that your sleep environment is comfortable, safe, and conducive to relaxation. Make your bedroom a sanctuary for rest, free from distractions and stressors.
That night changed me forever. It changed my family’s world forever. I know I will never forget the details of that night. They have become part of my guilded cracks (if you read last week’s article). However, it is important to strive and provide my body and mind with the best opportunity to heal itself both physically and mentally with good quality sleep. Tilly brought me so much joy and although I hate the fact that I can still open and close my eyes and she can’t I owe it to Tilly to live the longest most joyful life I can. Maybe when I dream I’ll dream of her.