Should Trauma Survivors Avoid Taking Naps?

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A lovely long nap seems like a gift.  And for trauma survivors who fear sleeping at night, a nap might be their most peaceful sleeping time.

It can also be the major contributor to their sleep terrors and nighttime insomnia.

The reasons for this are not a mystery to sleep scientists.  They don’t have to know anything about trauma, dissociation, or DID to explain it.  I will try to use as few scientific terms as I can to tell you what they are saying about daytime naps and the sleep problems common to trauma survivors.

  • Everyone’s brain produces a chemical that builds up during the day and produces a feeling of sleepiness at night.  Adenosine accumulates whether or not you have things to get done.  Naps “suck up” some of this chemical, and can make it harder to feel sleepy.  Could you still be exhausted at night?  Sure. Fatigue and sleepiness aren’t the same thing.  Ask any first-time parent during COVID.  But being sleepy is what you need to fall asleep and stay asleep in a healthy way.  Being exhausted is one of the risk factors for sleep terrors and insomnia.
  • Melatonin is another brain chemical that is important for sleep.  Our brains inhibit it when we are up and moving in bright light.  The more we stay in that light during the day, the more our brains block the release of Melatonin.  When we close the lights/shades and close our eyes, this triggers the release of this hormone, and we feel the pressure to sleep.  Melatonin doesn’t help us stay asleep, but it helps us initially fall asleep.  Napping disrupts this natural cycle, delaying nighttime sleep onset.
  • Poor quality sleep, insomnia, being exhausted, and poor quality REM sleep in particular (predominant in the later phases of sleep) will all predispose people to night terrors and insomnia.  As if trauma survivors needed help for those!

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What can I do when I want so badly to take a nap?

Try to be more active, not less.  Open the shades, go outside in the later afternoon without sunglasses since cloudy days still give you more lux (measure of light) than interior lights. Turn on your fave tunes and maybe dance around the office or the house if you can, or do something else that is active.  Not willing to show your coworkers your dance moves?  You can do something calming but active, like Progressive Muscle Relaxation.  But if it is safe and available to you, it is best if you are more physically active outdoors.  You may be surprised how effective this will be when compared to taking a snooze.

If you nap to avoid feelings or current stressors, those have to be dealt with anyway.  Don’t pay with your physical and mental health today for something that happened last week or 25 years ago.  You are then paying twice!  Talk to your therapist or a trusted friend.  Make a plan to tackle things in a small way.  A way that makes you feel powerful and safe.

If you are napping because you fear sleeping at night, you need to work on making your sleep environment feel safer and building your orientation to the current, safer time.  “This” is not “then”, and “these people” are not “those people”.  The more you and/or your system knows this is true, the easier it will be to sleep.

Are there any naps that are OK?

Sure.  A super-short one that happens early in the afternoon.  By “short”, I mean 10-20 minutes, with an alarm to wake you.  You get extra points if it occurs at the same time every single day.  Your body will get used to it, and it might not affect nighttime sleep in a negative way.  If it seems to be doing that, then you know what to do…

What if I am sick?

That is a different story.  An acute illness like COVID or the flu will make you want to sleep.  That’s OK.  Your body knows the healing power of sleep.  With a chronic illness, you still need to rest, but if you don’t need more nighttime sleep (7-9 hours is your goal), then targeted rest is better for you than a nap.  You can totally destroy your circadian rhythm so that you sleep more in the day and are awake at night.  Try hard to avoid this, because it is associated with damage to your physical health. It will take time to move things back to a better schedule, and you may need professional help to do it.  But if you have a chronic illness, you should know how damaging this pattern can be to your health.

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Published by Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist and a licensed massage therapist, in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment, with a focus on sensory processing issues and treating the consequences of complex trauma. I am the author of four books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training Your Child With Low Muscle Tone". Over the years I have lectured about trauma treatment and pediatric development.

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