Trauma and Insomnia

As I revealed in previous articles, I have seen many clients with a variety of highly disruptive and limiting symptoms that developed in the wake of a traumatic event.  Mary is a young woman who sought my help to overcome insomnia. For the previous 4 years, she had not been able to fall asleep without taking sleep aids, she had lost interest in having a relationship, and she had gained weight. I asked her what happened around the time she started having sleep issues, and she told me she had an abortion and her boyfriend left her. She downplayed the importance of that event and claimed that she was “over it,” although I was not convinced. In one of her first sessions, I asked her to vividly recall how she felt during and after her abortion, and she began to cry slightly as feelings of guilt resurfaced.

Recall my claim that an existing negative emotional charge (even a muted one), indicates that the emotional wound has not healed. At the same time, the absence of an emotional charge does not guarantee that there is no emotional wound. After a trauma resolution technique, Mary felt better immediately, her eating habits improved, and she was able to fall asleep without medication for the first time since the abortion. She was amazed that a past event that she could discuss calmly could have such an effect on her. A few months later, she reported that she had started dating again, and she had lost about 20 pounds.

I had a similar experience with Maggie, a client who had not been able to sleep for 10 years without medication. She was actually afraid to go to sleep naturally, as she had suffered stressful, sleepless nights whenever she attempted to do so. She also used cigarettes, alcohol, and cocaine on occasion to relieve her anxiety. Could it be more obvious that there had been a major trauma? She revealed that 10 years ago, she had left her house in the middle of the night to find her husband sitting dead in his car, after he had shot himself in the head. Maggie admitted to having been inconsolable for months afterward, and even after 10 years, she was still able to vividly replay the events of that night in her mind. Of course, her various forms of self-medicating ensured that she was seldom clearheaded long enough for that to happen. Fortunately, after a few sessions, she could not even picture her husband’s dead body or bloody car, and she felt emotionally neutral about the event. Maggie subsequently quit smoking and using drugs and alcohol, and her sleep improved significantly.

Let me be clear that I didn’t “erase” Maggie’s memory, as she could still recount the narrative of the entire experience and its challenging aftermath. But the emotional component of those memories was eliminated. I helped her to finally accept at a subconscious level that the experience was an unchangeable part of the past. If conscious, rational awareness were sufficient to resolve trauma, talk therapy would be fast and effective, and few people would suffer from anxiety or addictions. Subconscious acceptance is essential to emotional healing, while resistance and inability to accept and release the past causes emotional suffering. Nowhere is this truer than with grief, as you will see with the next example.

Traumatic Loss, Grief, and Fear

When Amanda was in college, her brother died suddenly, after which she suffered constant grief, developed an extreme fear of death (her own and that of her family members), and suffered from other intense fears. She had not realized much improvement after years of talk therapy, despite exploring her feelings of grief, receiving emotional support, and being reassured that her fears were irrational. I explained that the fears and grief were symptoms of her perception and beliefs related to her brother’s death, and that those issues could not be fully addressed at the conscious level. We focused on the subconscious roots, including full acceptance of what had happened, and after two sessions, her fear of death was gone. A few weeks later, Amanda was finally free of grief and the other fears. For the first time in 8 years, she was able to remember and celebrate her brother’s life instead of constantly grieving his death.

In the next post, you will see how a seemingly minor trauma can cause separation anxiety which can, in turn, sabotage relationships.