Sleep disturbance is one of the most common issues individuals with PTSD face. Specifically, insomnia and nightmares plague the vast majority of those struggling with the disorder.
Although it is assumed to be high, relatively little is known about the actual prevalence of sleep disturbances in veterans with PTSD. Any clinician who treats veterans with PTSD will likely tell you that most, if not all, of their patients suffer from sleep problems to some degree.
Relatedly, it is assumed that sleep disturbances improve with evidence-based PTSD treatments. However, to what degree is unclear.
In an effort to gain better clarity on these issues, researchers from the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, and colleagues from several other prestigious academic institutions, asked these questions to over 100 active-duty service members. Their findings were published in the November issue of Psychological Trauma and were shocking.
Not surprisingly, insomnia was the most frequently reported PTSD symptom prior to treatment. A whopping 92 percent acknowledged some degree of difficulty falling or staying asleep. Although not as high as insomnia, 69 percent of the same group reported suffering from nightmares.
The surprising, and somewhat disheartening news, is that approximately three-fourths of service members still reported insomnia as a problem after PTSD treatment. And around half still struggled with nightmares.
The researchers took an even deeper look into the results and found additional important information. For those service members who no longer met criteria for PTSD after successful treatment, more than half continued to report insomnia, and 13 percent continued to report problems with nightmares. Again, this is from those troops who made such significant improvement that they no longer had enough symptoms to retain the PTSD diagnosis.
In my opinion, there are two important take-home messages from this study.
First, sleep problems will likely continue in many people with PTSD, even in those service members who benefit greatly from treatment. Therefore, it is important to manage expectations. There are few — if any — complete "cures" in psychology and psychiatry, but this doesn’t mean you can’t go on to lead a rewarding and fulfilling life. Keep in mind, many people without PTSD struggle with sleep.
Second, you may want to ask to be referred for a sleep-focused therapy in addition to the PTSD treatment. Treatments like Imagery Rehearsal Therapy and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia have been proven successful for nightmares and insomnia.
Bret A. Moore, Psy.D., is a board-certified clinical psychologist who served two tours in Iraq. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is for informational purposes only and is not intended to convey specific psychological or medical guidance.