The good news is that trauma survivors can conquer insomnia. The bad news: it takes time. I’ve had insomnia for nearly fifty years. Habits that have gone on that long aren’t going to change overnight. But they are changing and that is what matters. The automatic system of threat response laid down in the early years of my childhood drives insomnia in the present. In addition to the usual suggestions for curing insomnia, such as sleep hygiene, sleep restriction, a sleep diary, and others, I’ve added some unique ways trauma survivors can conquer insomnia.

Body-The Physical Part of Insomnia

“If I am going to deal with insomnia, I do not need to conquer my body. I need to befriend it. “

You cannot ignore the body if you want to cure insomnia, but as a trauma survivor, that is exactly what I have been trained to do by my abusers. When chronic childhood abuse enters the picture, it makes an enemy of our body. We had no control over what was done to it, so we separated from it and even turned against it. The body, with its needs, wants, and desires become part of the problem. We see it as an obstacle. How many times have I raged at myself for not being able to sleep? Too many to count. What is wrong with me? Is my brain broken? Why does my body refuse to cooperate? Why won’t it sleep if sleep is an inherent need? And then, I am reduced to self-hatred, bitterness, frustration, and anger. I’m raging at an enemy that doesn’t exist. If I am going to deal with insomnia, I do not need to conquer my body. I need to befriend it. 

I need to reframe the way I think about it. My body is sacred. It is what allows me to move around in the world. It is what houses my thoughts, hopes and dreams. It is part of who I am—and it is good. I need to care for my body, not hate it. In addition to utilizing relaxation exercises, I must learn how to set the stage for sleep using something called sleep structure. 

The goal is to make bed a cue for sleep. Insomnia makes the bed an enemy. Even if you’re exhausted, the moment you get into bed, you suddenly become awake. You’ve spent so many hours frustrated in bed that your sleep environment has become a stimulus associated with insomnia. Another phrase that describes this phenomenon is negative sleep behavior.

Common types of negative sleep behavior:

  • -sleeping in
  • -going to bed too early 
  • -spending too much time in bed awake
  • -sleeping pills
  • -putting too much effort into sleep

So how do I get off the negative sleep track? There are four main areas sleep structure will address. Both take time and consistency. 

  1. The time you go to bed
  2. How long do you spend in bed
  3. The time you wake up
  4. What do you do when you can’t sleep

“One of the most important things to remember: Sleep is a passive process.”

Mind-The Thought Process of Insomnia


In trying to cope with insomnia, my mind has unconsciously formed habits that make it worse. Auto-pilot (disassociation), or splitting, as some call it, is a way to go numb. I do it to get relief from spiraling thoughts. Late-night numbing might include things like watching videos or eating. While these activities help in the short run, in the long run, they make insomnia worse. Instead of learning to let my mind wind down, I use high-carb & sugary foods like a drug. Watching mind-numbing videos might anesthetize me until I’m exhausted, but it isn’t teaching my mind how to let go and sleep. 

Mind Sifting

I call this next bad sleep habit—mind sifting. The night is not the time to process the past or worry about a problem. Your defenses are down, and often, the body is in pain. The habit of sifting, whether you’re going through the past or worrying about the future causes trauma thoughts to grow louder. 

Negative Sleep Thoughts

Negative sleep thoughts create stress around sleep, which then causes negative sleep behaviors. I’m not talking about working harder at insomnia. I’m talking about creating a structure that leads to sleep and the first place to start is with your beliefs. 

Negative thoughts/beliefs about sleep:

  • I’m overtired and can’t fall asleep
  • I’ll never fall asleep again
  • I will always struggle with insomnia

The frustrating part is that these are normal responses to insomnia, but if you let them take over, they will make insomnia worse. They lead to hyper-arousal and all the behavior and destructive thought processes associated with trauma. 

What to do

By shifting your beliefs, you recognize, then challenge, and then replace those negative sleep thoughts with positive ones. I’m not talking about affirmations. I’m talking about shifting your beliefs to thoughts that are 100% true.  

Positive facts about sleep: 

  • My brain is not broken
  • I do not need to try harder to sleep. I need to create the possibility for sleep.
  • Sleep is a passive process.

“The more inner healing work a trauma survivor does, the better we get at managing insomnia.”


Managing Everyday Stress

The spirit. That deep, inner place where our thoughts, desires, hopes, and dreams reside. The place most hurt by childhood trauma. Managing everyday stress has everything to do with managing insomnia. If I consistently go through my day aroused by every frustration and difficulty, it is a sure bet I am going to struggle with insomnia that night. My spirit will be upset. I will not be able to live in peace or hope to relax. All that stress correlates to insomnia. The more inner healing work a trauma survivor does, the better we get at managing insomnia. 

While overcoming insomnia is a complicated process, when you look at it as a whole, it is manageable. Although there is no quick fix, there is a path, and that’s what matters. Slow and steady wins the race. 

“Sleep is an unconscious process.”

Make A Plan

Screens -As nighttime approaches, begin to shut down your screens. Give yourself time to unwind from the stress of the day. 

Notebook – Keep a blank notebook handy. Write down any anxious thoughts that come to mind. You might have separate lists such as Worries, To-Do List, and Trauma Thoughts. Don’t invite the thought to stay. Write it down and tell yourself you will deal with it first thing in the morning. 

Meditation-Keeping your mind blank is impossible. Replace negative thoughts with restful, positive ones. I use scripture to help me do this. Prayer is another way. Perhaps a restful poem. Anything that feeds your mind and spirit while helping you to relax. Whatever causes your mind to race and become aroused is something to save for the next day.

Mind/Body Relaxation Exercises – These are included with my ebook and are available for free download on my website. Relaxation exercises can help make a positive mind/body connection and prepare you for sleep. 

When You Can’t Sleep -choose an activity like a craft or book that is pleasurable but not stimulating. Listen to a sleepy story. Don’t do things like clean out the refrigerator or plan a new painting. That may be fun, but it will keep you up even longer.  


Shift 1– Understand the real cause for insomnia. Don’t concentrate on triggers ie: depression, stress. Triggers lead to the cycle of poor sleep. Example: negative sleep thoughts=negative sleep behaviors= more poor sleep etc. The problem isn’t the trigger. It is our behavior in response to that trigger.

Shift 2– External sleeping pills do not treat insomnia. They only treat the symptoms and interfere with the normal sleep cycle and REM sleep. They are also addictive and come with side effects. Using external things to manage insomnia undermines self-management.

Shift 3- Make your bed a cue for sleep. The bed has become an enemy for sleep instead of an ally. Our sleep environment has become a cue for arousal because of the hours we’ve spent tossing and turning.

Shift 4-Remove effort from trying to sleep. The conscious mind gets in the way of sleep. Sleep is an unconscious process. Trying leads to bad sleep behaviors. Effort causes hyperarousal. The key is to create conditions that make effortless sleep possible. 

Two ingredients are needed for effortless sleep: 

1)Enough sleep pressure 

Whether this means naps or sleeping in, sleeping too much during the day will destroy your body’s natural need for sleep (sleep pressure). As long as you are taking away from sleep pressure during the day, the automatic need for sleep will not take over at night. 

2)Relaxed enough for sleep.

Working at making yourself sleep will only do one thing; keep you awake. Sleep is unconscious. If you approach the negative thoughts and behaviors around sleep instead of sleep itself, you will see an improvement. 

Conquering insomnia will occur in stages. Don’t beat yourself up when the progress is slow. Example: I found I could fall asleep on the couch but not in the bed. This common occurrence happens because I associate the bed with insomnia. Even though I hated sleeping on the couch, I let myself do that for a long time. I stopped getting angry at myself about it and worked on other areas of insomnia. Without even trying, I eventually and consistently began to fall asleep in bed. Trauma had taken so much from us. Try to be patient and kind to yourself as you heal insomnia.

To receive a list of ways to turn hyper-arousal off, download my free ebook “Conquer Insomnia” on my website: or email a request to [email protected]  And sign up for my free newsletter while you’re there.

Some concepts in this article are taken from the following sources:

 Dr. Steve Orma’s “Put Insomnia to Sleep” program.

Beth Kendall
Guest Post Disclaimer: Any and all information shared in this guest blog post is intended for educational and informational purposes only. Nothing in this blog post, nor any content on, is a supplement for or supersedes the relationship and direction of your medical or mental health providers. Thoughts, ideas, or opinions expressed by the writer of this guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of CPTSD Foundation. For more information, see our Privacy Policy and Full Disclaimer.