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?

Ambien Gets Another Black Eye

As if it weren’t bad enough that Ambien, a.k.a. zolpidem, can cause sleepwalking, sleep eating, and sleep driving. Now researchers are saying that America’s favorite sleeping pill increases the retention of negative memories. This is not a good thing.

black-eyeAs if it weren’t bad enough that Ambien, a.k.a. zolpidem, can cause sleepwalking, sleep eating, and sleep driving. Now researchers are saying that America’s favorite sleeping pill increases the retention of negative memories. This is not a good thing.

Sleep generally helps you process negative events. Chances are you’ll never forget the fire that broke out in your kitchen, but sleep will help to diminish its emotional charge. You’ll wake up after a good night’s sleep in a more positive frame of mind.

But Ambien seems to interfere with this process. It does so by increasing sleep spindles—sudden bursts of electrical activity in the brain that may last up to a second. Overall, sleep spindles are beneficial. They play a role in helping to consolidate memories of facts and events. But the team that conducted this new research, led by psychologist Sara C. Mednick of UC Riverside, found that sleep spindles enhance the retention of emotionally charged memories as well—negative memories in particular.

Ambien’s Effects on Emotion

Researchers in this study divided their subjects into three groups. One group was given Ambien; the second, a placebo; and the third, Xyrem, another sedative drug. All subjects then looked at a series of images, some positive and others disturbing. Then they took naps. When they were awakened and asked to recall the images, the subjects that had taken Ambien remembered more images that had negative or highly arousing content. So the drug appears to enhance the recall of negative memories.

I use Ambien from time to time, and frankly I’m not surprised at this result. I love the little yellow pills for their unfailing ability to put me to sleep. But when my wakefulness is due to stress and emotional arousal, malaise is still with me the morning after I take a pill. Whatever good the Ambien does (and I’m still convinced the benefits outweigh the side effects, at least for me) it does not do a good job of helping regulate my mood.

So Ambien looks like a bad drug for people with anxiety disorders and PTSD. “These are people who already have heightened memory for negative and high-arousal memories,” Mednick said, quoted in an online article in Psych Central. “Sleep drugs might be improving their memories for things they don’t want to remember.”

All Ambien users—regardless of other health conditions—should keep this new information in mind.

If you use Ambien, how does taking a pill at night affect your mood the next day?