Relationship between trauma, poor sleep and stress symptoms

Trauma, sleep problems and stress symptoms are closely related

In a new study, evidence was found that sleep problems could have a crucial impact on people developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing stressful experiences.

Post-traumatic stress disorder after harrowing experiences

If people have experienced terrible things, so-called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can occur in addition to anxiety disorders and depression, even if the dramatic experiences were weeks or months ago, sometimes even years ago. Trauma researchers at Saarland University have now found evidence in a sleep study that sleep problems could have a decisive impact on people developing PTSD after difficult experiences. The study results were published in the specialist journal "Sleep Medicine".

Insignificant little things can trigger flashbacks

People who have experienced extreme physical violence, a terrorist attack, accident, war or something shocking sometimes fail to process what they have experienced.

In the case of post-traumatic stress disorder, memory becomes a problem for those affected. Insignificant little things - a smell, a T-shirt in a certain color - trigger so-called flashbacks without warning:

Suddenly and with force they experience the terrible again and again - several times a day.

"In addition to symptoms such as compulsive brooding or irritability, it is also typical that those affected cannot fully remember important parts of what is happening," explains psychology professor and trauma therapist Tanja Michael from the Saarland University in a statement.

In the case of secondary trauma disorders, the memory is obviously impaired.

Most of the patients suffer from problems falling asleep and staying asleep

The Saarbrücken trauma researchers led by Tanja Michael wanted to get to the bottom of this.

The results of her sleep study suggest that trauma, poor sleep and the development of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are closely related.

The researchers found evidence that a traumatic event can cause sleep disorders and that sleep quality in turn has an impact on the development of PTSD symptoms.

"Seventy to over ninety percent of patients with post-traumatic stress disorder suffer from problems falling asleep and staying asleep, as is known from previous studies," explains Roxanne Sopp, a doctor of psychology.

In general, sleep plays a crucial role in memory formation. "Sleep has a crucial function, particularly when it is saved in long-term memory and for consolidating memory," says Sopp.

Interplay of trauma, sleep disorders and memory-related symptoms

In order to shed more light on the interplay of trauma, sleep disorders and memory-related symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, the team confronted test subjects with "traumatic" film content.

In their experimental study, the researchers investigated how these film contents, which trigger a kind of "small", temporary trauma, affect the test subjects' sleep quality and spontaneous, stressful memories.

32 subjects, all robust sleepers with no difficulty in sleeping, spent one night in the Saar University's sleep laboratory - observed by the scientists who monitored their sleep with brain flow measurements (EEG).

One group saw the trauma film before going to bed, the control group a neutral, non-stressful film.

"The sleep duration was reduced in the trauma group, the non-rem sleep was significantly reduced and the waking phases at night were longer," summarizes Sopp.

The study participants in the trauma group then kept a diary for several days and documented how often they thought about scenes from the film and how stressful they felt.

They also answered questionnaires asking about typical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as flashbacks. The researchers evaluated the results together with the brain flow measurements.

Further improve confrontation therapy

The team found clear evidence of a connection: "More sleep, fewer symptoms," says Roxanne Sopp.

“The more REM sleep phases the test subjects had, the fewer flashbacks they had after key stimuli and they also found them to be less stressful. That speaks for a connection between sleep and PTSD symptoms. "

The researchers now want to incorporate these findings into the psychotherapeutic treatment of patients with post-traumatic stress disorders.

In particular, the aim is to further improve confrontation therapy, one of the most successful trauma treatment methods. As part of such therapies, they want to use sleep therapies to support memory development.

"The disruption of the memory processes, which is responsible for the fact that the traumatic event for the sufferer is constantly present again, is the central starting point of the confrontation therapy," explains Sopp.

“At the same time, this disorder also complicates the therapy process and thus the effectiveness of the therapy. This is where our research comes in, ”says the scientist.

"In order to improve the effectiveness of confrontation therapy in the future, we are investigating whether sleep enhances memory processes that take place during successful trauma therapies." (Ad)

Author and source information

Video: Posttraumatic stress disorder PTSD - causes, symptoms, treatment u0026 pathology (November 2021).