Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects nearly 8% of the country’s population at any given time. That’s about 24.4 million people in the USA. It’s more prevalent in women, with one out of every nine developing the condition, but it can affect anyone especially those who are enlisted in the military or work in dangerous occupations.
On a personal level, PTSD can impact anything from personal thoughts and memories to dreams. It can strike at any time, and puts those affected by it in danger of harming themselves, hampering their day to day lives. On the economy, anxiety disorders cost the country up to $42.3 billion per annum, making PTSD a significant condition that needs urgent attention.
But until recently, PTSD wasn’t even recognised as a disorder, which made it difficult to treat. As a result, treatments are still very complex due to studies still being conducted into understanding the inner workings of the condition. But there is a glimmer of hope: scientists are beginning to look at how treating sleep disorders – one of the side effects and common causes of PTSD – can reduce the chances of developing the condition.
In 2015 scientists at the RAND Corporation released a report showing that sleep problems were very prevalent in the military. In it they identified a lack of sleep as a common cause of mental illnesses and PTSD. Their argument was that active military members weren’t being screened for sleeping problems and were expected to be available for duty for long hours at a time.
A Harvard Medical School article further supports the claim by pointing out that little is understood about the causal relationship between sleep and mental health. However, those suffering from sleep disorders are more likely to develop mental problems. Basically, when sleep is interrupted it affects the levels of neurotransmitters and stress hormones. In turn, these impact the brain's ability to process thoughts and regulate emotions.
The result is an elevation in stress levels, exhaustion and an inability to focus, which increases the likelihood of PTSD. It’s not hard to see why this is a huge possibility. If you’re stressed, exhausted, unhappy, a traumatic event such as a brutal attack or debilitating accident is more likely to have a lasting impact on your psyche.
The Harvard Medical School newsletter also brought more credence to the correlation by pointing out that 50% of adults with anxiety disorders (such as PTSD) also have a history of sleep problems. Although the article did point out that a lack of sleep is more likely to result in depression, it highlighted the reality that sleep disorders were a risk factor for developing anxiety disorders.
What all this research is showing is that, what was previously believed to be a symptom of psychiatric problems could actually be the root cause. However, because very little is still known about some of these psychological problems such as PTSD, there’s not enough conclusive evidence. While this may be the case, it’s clear that sleep and PTSD have a relationship. Treating one may help reduce the other.
More attention needs to be paid to how sleep impacts our psychology. The more we start understanding how sleep can lead to psychological conditions such as PTSD, the better our chances of coming up with better treatments and preventing anxiety disorders as well as other psychological conditions. So even if you don’t suffer from PTSD, you should see a medical practitioner if your sleep is regularly disturbed. It might save you from future psychological complications.