abused-boyCraig, an insomnia sufferer I interviewed for my book, has an explanation for why he wakes up early at 3 a.m.

“Severe childhood abuse,” he said, “waking up at a particular time and being exposed to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. It started around age 3 or 3 ½ and it continued a long, long time.”

Research shows that childhood adversity makes people more vulnerable to a host of problems, from depression and psychosis to obesity and diabetes. Not surprisingly, early exposure to a range of traumas—from abuse and domestic violence to household drug abuse and mental illness—also sets us up for insomnia. Here are some recent findings:

  • Swedish researchers looked at 313 students to determine if autobiographical memories had an effect on their sleep. Even students whose current lives were arousing and stressful slept significantly better than those with abundant negative memories.
  • Scientists with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention used data from a study of over 17,000 adults in California to see if there was a relationship between childhood experiences and poor sleep. Adults reporting lots of childhood abuse and household dysfunction were twice as likely to have trouble falling or staying asleep and to feel tired after a good night’s sleep than adults with happy childhood experiences.
  • Researchers from the University of Southern California investigated the effect of parental abuse and neglect on sleep problems in older adults. Early emotional abuse was significantly associated with more sleep complaints in old age, they found. The relationship was partly explained by the fact that the early abuse hindered the development of supportive social relationships later in life.

Childhood adversity seems to have long-lasting effects on people’s sleep, and scientists say it has to do with changes in the brain. Abuse and neglect often bring about chronically elevated levels of stress hormones. This in turn induces higher stress reactivity, which is known to interfere with sleep. “When exposed to stressful events,” write the authors of a paper on adverse childhood experiences (ACE) associated with sleep, “maltreated and traumatized individuals show an increased risk for the activation of memories or schemas which are related to ACE.” Nightmares, anxiety dreams, and trouble sleeping are the unwelcome result.

Are these brain changes reversible? To some extent they may be. While psychotherapy may not do much to improve the sleep of insomniacs with happy childhoods, it may be the surest path to better sleep for insomniacs who early in life suffered abuse and neglect.

Have early negative experiences had a lasting impact on your sleep? What forms of treatment have you sought out?

Posted by Lois Maharg, The Savvy Insomniac

Lois Maharg has worked with language for many years. She taught ESL, coauthored two textbooks, and then became a reporter, writing about health, education, government, Latino affairs, and food. Her lifelong struggle with insomnia and interest in investigative reporting motivated her to write a book, The Savvy Insomniac: A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep. She now freelances as an editor and copy writer at On the Mark Editing.

2 Comments

  1. You’re teaching me so much about sleep and the lack of it, some causes for it, and some consequences. It’s a treasure trove of knowledge you’ve gleaned over years of serious research. Thank you!

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  2. You’re certainly welcome, Marlene. I’m so glad you find it interesting. I hope you’ll like my book even more. It just went to the printer today!

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