Why Your Nightcap Could Slow Your Progress in Trauma Treatment

glass on bed

Nighttime is often the worst time of the day for trauma survivors.  Having a drink, one little drink, seems like a safe idea.  “Just enough to take the edge off” is what you might tell yourself.   “I know I will probably wake up in the middle of the night, but since I can sleep in the next day…”

The science suggests that your nightcap could be erasing the benefits of the time you spent in therapy this week.  It might not be that you aren’t trying.  It might not be that your therapist is “phoning it in” lately.


Why could this be true?

It has to do with how alcohol affects learning and emotional learning in particular for many people.  It is biology that would steal away your hard-earned insights into your past and your present.

This is what seems to happen to many people:  the reduction in late sleep-stage REM sleep doesn’t allow your brain to sift through the work you did in therapy and help it “stick”.

train tracks

Almost everyone has had dreams about the events of the day before, and sometimes you come up with a solution when you awaken.  But a lot of the work of learning and cementing that knowledge where you can use it is happening without dream awareness.  It is completely unconscious.  Making meaningful cognitive and particularly meaningful emotional connections, making them while awake and able to respond in a way that isn’t triggering and isn’t a reflexive response, is what healing is all about.  Isn’t that what you are trying to get out of therapy?  A better you, a calmer and happier you that can pivot and flex in life now?

Well, if your brain is busy dealing with the metabolites of alcohol from a few hours ago, it can’t do both.  It will always deal with metabolites over learning and synthesizing.

Always.  That is how biology works.  It follows the rules.

So that nightcap might seem to be the answer to a hard day, or to the fact that it is 11 PM and you are tired but not sleepy yet.

To me, that small drink at night doesn’t seem like it is worth it, once you think about how expensive therapy has become, how hard you are working in therapy, and how much you want that better life.


Published by Cathy Collyer

I am a licensed occupational therapist, licensed massage therapist, and certified CBT-i sleep coach in private practice in the NYC area. I have over 25 years of professional experience in adult and pediatric treatment. It has been a joy to help people of all ages improve their ability to grow and thrive! Occupational therapists are focused on enhancing a client's functioning in everyday life. We are practical healthcare providers, interested in teaching, adapting actions and environments, and building a client's useful skills for living their best life, regardless of their challenges. I am the author of five books, including "Staying In The Room: Managing Medical And Dental Care When You Have DID" and "The Practical Guide To Toilet Training the Autistic Child". I lecture on many subjects, including sleep, trauma, and development. Contact me to learn more about how I can help you achieve YOUR goals!

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