Sleep Problems Following a Stressful Childhood

Only a minority of the insomnia sufferers I interviewed for The Savvy Insomniac said their insomnia began in childhood. But regardless of when their sleep problem began, a number reported having had stressful and/or abusive experiences in childhood.

Is there a relationship between adverse childhood experiences and insomnia later in life? Anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests there is.

insomnia can occur following a stressful childhoodOnly a minority of the insomnia sufferers I interviewed for The Savvy Insomniac said their insomnia began in childhood. But regardless of when their sleep problem began, a number reported having had stressful and/or abusive experiences in childhood.

Is there a relationship between adverse childhood experiences and insomnia later in life? Anecdotal and scientific evidence suggests there is.

Difficult Childhoods

Liz’s insomnia started in adulthood, worsening around the time of menopause. But she remembered being “a very, very nervous, anxious child”:

I have my suspicions that my trouble sleeping goes back a long, long way. My mother and father had difficulties and they fought a lot, and that made me anxious. I don’t think I feared for myself so much as I felt a general anxiousness about the disruption. Then I had a brother who was 6 years older than me and was always getting into trouble. He grew up with his father away in Egypt during the war. All of sudden he was 6 years old and he had a father and there were major problems between them. That was another disruption, another source of anxiety for me.

Keith thought it was the pattern of abuse he experienced at the hands of a family member that set him up for trouble sleeping:

I experienced severe childhood abuse—physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. It started when I was young and continued a long, long time. It happened early in the morning. When I wake up early now, and I often do, there’s frustration that I’m not able to sleep because I’m vigilant, I’m unable to relax. I’m pretty sure the childhood abuse is the source of my sleep difficulties.

What the Research Shows

Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) increase people’s susceptibility to health problems later in life. The relationship between ACEs and mental illness, substance abuse, and heart disease is well documented. A recent literature review conducted by Harvard researchers shows that children who experience trauma are also more vulnerable to sleep disorders as adults.

In a majority of studies documenting this relationship, sleep problems were assessed subjectively, by the patients or participants themselves:

  • In a retrospective study of data collected from 17,337 HMO members, trouble falling and staying asleep was significantly associated with several types of childhood trauma: (1) physical abuse, (2) sexual abuse, (3) emotional abuse, (4) witnessing domestic violence, (5) household substance abuse, (6) household mental illness, (7)parental separation or divorce, and (8) household member imprisonment.
  • In a subsequent study, the authors found these same ACEs to be associated with frequent insufficient sleep.
  • In a longitudinal study, children who experienced family conflict between the ages of 7 and 15 were more likely to report insomnia at age 18.
  • Among women overall, there was a strong association between childhood sexual abuse and sleep disturbances reported in adulthood.

In two studies, sleep problems were assessed objectively using a wristwatch-type device:

  • Among 39 insomnia patients, a history of abuse and neglect explained a moderate amount of variance in sleep onset latency (39%), sleep efficiency (37%), number of body movements (40%) and moving time in bed (36%).
  • Among 48 psychiatric outpatients, childhood stress load was a correlate of total sleep time, sleep latency, sleep efficiency, and number of body movements.

Finally, the more traumatic childhood events people reported, the poorer was their quality of sleep:

  • People who experienced 1 to 2 ACEs were twice as likely to report poor sleep quality as people with no ACEs. People who experienced 3 to 6 ACEs were 3.5 times as likely to experience poor quality sleep as people with no ACEs.
  • As the number of ACEs went up, so did the prevalence of insufficient sleep.

Clearly adverse childhood experiences make it more likely that people will develop chronic insomnia or insomnia symptoms in adulthood. I did not experience familial abuse or neglect. I’m guessing, though, that the bullying I experienced one year at school increased my susceptibility to insomnia . . . but that’s a topic for another blog post.

How about you? Do you think there’s a link between your trouble sleeping and adversity you experienced in your youth?

Abuse Has Long-Lasting Effects on Sleep

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.

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?