Fibromyalgia: Trauma, Sleep disturbances, Night terrors, Sleep walking, Nightmares

“Trauma is so arresting that traumatized people will focus on it compulsively”, Peter Levine

There are so many various kinds of sleep disturbances that it becomes somewhat of a check list to differentiate between them all. Some of us suffer from everyone of them. I began having night terrors when I first started school,age 5, and the nuns told us stories of being responsible for killing Christ because we were born with original sin on our souls. Of course this  frightened us and made the entire class cry. We  were warned about sin and hell from the first day. I would hyperventilate at night and lose my breath. I was afraid to go to sleep. This was a serious trauma in my childhood. I began sleep walking. It was the time of the polio scare and this was added to the fears. World War ll had not yet ended the year I began school in Montreal and we were afraid our fathers would be sent away and be killed. There was much to be anxious about. My parents were extremely fearful people; my father has recently been diagnosed as a ‘borderline personality disorder’ which added to my lifelong anxiety.  And so began my lifetime of night terrors and nightmares. The trauma of my adult life is too lengthy to document here (nor is it necessary) but most of us have experienced traumas of one sort or another, whether major or minor. The women in my book tell stories about their own sleep disturbances based upon their life experiences, so I am not unique in this regard.

Going to bed at night was/is not a peaceful or relaxing experience.  Now I usually awake often and the fibro pain is always present. I have tried many relaxing techniques and meditation before going to bed and lately I often try to avoid newspapers and the news. Sleeping time  is a challenging process and requires discipline/willpower to make it relaxing and something to look forward to after a tiring day.

Nowadays the minute by minute news is  horrifying. Murder, wars, epidemics, economy problems, abuse  stories are rampant. Even much of the new music we hear is often grating to our brains and is not  pleasant. We are warned hourly about everything that could possibly go wrong in our lives and never taught to relax or look at life joyfully. People with fibromyalgia are those with over- stimulated nervous systems that are constantly bombarded with images of pain and suffering. The amygdala is constantly aroused. Living in this era younger people face many of the same frightening issues those of us in our later years once experienced, only the context has changed : World War l and ll / Iraq and Afghanistan; Polio/ H1N1; Nazi spies/Terrorists. All decades have their demons to frighten and alarm us. What is different now is that we can visually see victims and we are instantly aware of disasters, unlike that of my childhood. How do we train our brains to avoid all those messages we see on TV? We are warned about  deadly flu, cancer, strokes, heart disease and yes, even erectile dysfunction, although I must admit the latter does not cause mepersonally to have too much anxiety:-). Every ad sends warnings to our brains (that sensitive little amygdala again) and causes more hypervigilance. It is little wonder that conditioned as we fibro sufferers are to take on these alarms, the night time unconscious brain is even more hyperactive and alarmed. Past or present traumas in our lives incite the nervous system to respond to worry, stimulation and/or excitement.

To prove this point I glanced at today’s newspaper in The Globe and Mailand the front page picture that I first saw was of Khalid Sheik Mohammed under the headlines A TERROR TRIAL IN TROUBLE. Skipping over this I saw another headline about budget cuts. I could feel the anxiety creeping up on me and not wanting to find more horrific examples of death due to H1N1, I was about to put the paper down but I then found the most amazing story about Captain Trevor Greene, who suffered a severe brain injury while serving in the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan. The next words that captured my attention was retraining his brain. “It is neuroplasticity”, he explained in an interview. He said he can “almost feel new pathways forming” (quoted in the article on A14). The article goes on to say “The neuroplastic revolution as some call it, stems from discoveries in the 1960s and 1970s that showed how the brain physically changes as we learn, think and move”. He talks about how it takes a lot of willpower to retrain the brain. But his on-going success story is one of courage and discipline. It was inspiring and I know without doubt, once again, that the former blogs I have written about neuroplasticity are intensely relevant to fibromyalgia. We CAN retrain our brains and form new pathways, particularly with regard to sleep patterns.

I wish though that I had easy answers for those of you who write me about your disturbed sleep patterns. Generally these are the tips I try to follow, hoping to retrain my brain and form new maps: 1) I try to remember that occasionallyI may have a good sleep of at least four or five  hours and not awaken once 2) De-catastrophize. I have written elsewhere about our tendency to feed into negativity about our pain, lack of sleep and fatigue and to try not to imagine the worst. This only makes our sleep more troublesome  3) I only go to bed when sleepy. Many of us think that if we go to bed earlier we will have better sleep. That usually isn’t true 4) Try melatonin as it is a natural product and is very helpful for some 5) Try not to nap during the day 6) Have a snack of something that has ‘tryptophan’ in it. Eat a banana or try warm milk  7) Avoid stimulants such as alcohol, which at first may make one sleepy but after it wears off causes stimulation  8 )  Use your bed for only sleeping (or sex), not for reading or watching TV 9) Don’t be a clock watcher (my very worse habit!) 10) Make sure you are not too hot or too cold!  If none of these things work don’t be afraid to use a prescribed light medication for a shortperiod of time! Imagine yourself having a restful sleep and follow this positive thought throughout the day. Give your brain a hopeful message! The amygdala, that little part of the brain that affects those of us with fibromyalgia so intensely needs to receive positive messages to let go. As Dr. Levine writes: ” trauma can and must be reformed by working with it internally”. But he also warns that “the solution to vanquishing trauma comes not through confronting it directly, but by working with its reflection, mirrored in our instinctual responses”. We must focus on” internal bodily sensations, rather than attacking the trauma head-on”. A recent documentary on sleep/dreams (Nova) has been helpful in understanding the mechanisms of sleep, but did not focus specifically on the difficulties that many of us have with non-restorative sleep.

I am re-reading THE most influential book that I have ever come across regarding healing  trauma by Peter Levine, one that I have pictured elsewhere on another blog,  Waking the Tiger. He writes about struggling to ignore past trauma or else telling and re-telling (re-traumatizing) and living it over and over. Neither of these approaches heals our past traumas. The amygdala needs soothing, not alarming messages. I wish all therapists  would use this book as one which guides their practice. His chapter (12) on hypervigilance is extremely helpful for those of us who recognize how easily we are hyper-aroused (or even more especially for those of us who are in denial regarding the physiological impact of hypervigilance).

Of all the hints I have mentioned we have to train our brains to believe that we do not have to be on guard during the night. We can learn to relax and think of sleep as a safe time to rejuvenate our tired muscles. It takes discipline. We have to remind ourselves  that we do occasionally have a good night sleep. Find a comedy show that will bring  laughter, listen to soothing music, avoid drama or news on TV and more importantly focus on the bodily sensations that are evoked as we begin to think about the act of sleeping, meditate… ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZquilts 009

12 thoughts on “Fibromyalgia: Trauma, Sleep disturbances, Night terrors, Sleep walking, Nightmares

  1. Mario Fulkos

    I have been reading a lot on here and have picked up some great info. One thing I have found which works well for better sleep, feeling more relaxed and focused is binaural beats. As strange as they may sound (excuse the pun) they are a very powerful method of relaxation.

  2. barbara keddy

    Dear Mario: Thanks for the heads up on binaural beats! Quite frankly I had never heard of it! I will research it for sure! Regards, Barbara

  3. Carolyn Thomas

    Hi Barbara,

    “…when I first started school, age 5, and the nuns told us stories of being responsible for killing Christ because we were born with original sin on our souls. Of course this frightened us and made the entire class cry. We were warned about sin and hell from the first day. I would hyperventilate at night and lose my breath. I was afraid to go to sleep. This was a serious trauma in my childhood….” Do these people not realize the damage they are doing to such tiny perfect innocents? A theological worldview that was based on fear and guilt and punishment – no wonder you had trouble sleeping at night!

    Oh, my goodness. I just had my own little flashback reading that description of your very early education. I have to go have a little lie-down now…. This is precisely why I now describe myself as a ‘recovering Catholic’, having survived convent boarding school and a rabidly Catholic family in which, if one of us five children stubbed our toe while simply crossing a room, my parents would say: “See? God punishes bad children!”

    Q: how did either of us grow up even remotely normal given that upbringing?!?!?

    But I digress….. 🙂 I will look for Waking The Tiger.

    Many thanks,

  4. barbara keddy

    Happy Solstice Carolyn, looking forward to the 21st when the days begin to get longer. Today is -8C in Nova Scotia! These days are not easy for fibro people and no doubt people with other chronic illnesses. Hope people are looking at your site often as it is one of my most important links! Thanks for your comments. Happy to hear from another ‘recovering Catholic”! My own kids did not have to suffer from all that fear and guilt fortunately. Best wishes, Barbara

  5. Erin


    This makes so much sense for me. I was a little confused when my Rheumatologist just gave me a sleeping pill and then was not surprised when I only slept four hours without waking. It was later that he said that is the best people with FM can expect. It made such a difference in how I viewed my sleep.

    I too am a recovering Catholic! How funny is that! My daughter will not know the fear and the guilt and the constant fear of disappointing someone. I remember for years too wondering now what i did to make GOD mad when it was raining becuase that was the explaination i was given.

  6. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Hi Erin: If only health professionals knew more about brain maps, especially negative ones from childhood or other adult traumas, they would be able to help us more reasonably than giving us pills! We have to educate others as some researchers are still trying to find a virus or bacteria that causes this demon so that they can find a ‘cure’:-( (a pill). We are all into medicating ourselves (me included) to find some degree of relief for the pain and fatigue. Sleepless nights are the bane of our existence! My grown children and young grandchildren don’t know about “the fear of God” and were not raised with fear. For that I am thankful! In the meantime you and I have to become the experts of our own lives.
    Best wishes,

  7. connie

    I realize that this is an old post but one thing you said in your comments is making me question things.

    I have been diagnosed with cfs and in the last year I have been popping tylenols a number of times a day. I’ve been avoiding the doc because I assume she will say fibrous and another diagnosis with no effective treatment doesn’t interest me.

    But the person you describe above is not me. I am not a worrier. I assume tomorrow will be fine. I read the news to stay informed and rarely worry that something bad will happen. Do you believe that fibro is linked to worry and neural pathways & not physical?

  8. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Hi Connie:I don’t think that a worrier is necessarily the type of person who develops fibro or CFS. I do believe it is that of a highly sensitive person, intuitive, hyperaroused nervous system that becomes overstimulated easily. I DO believe that after experiencing pain and fatigue for a long time the person then becomes very worried that things may never get better, what else could be wrong etc etc and the worries magnify. A person may or may not be a worrier to begin with, but usually becomes one after the fact. At least this is what I believe and I may be completely off base here. So much to speculate about and so little actual scientific data to back any of it up!. Thanks for your comments and best wishes, Barbara

  9. Nikki

    Ptsd and fybromyalgia go hand in hand. I’ve been having nightmares for a very long time…therapy helped me be able to cope alittle better but all the pills make me 100xs worse (paradox) effect..moved 1500 miles and got some relief in an arid climate …also got a medical card which is also giving some relief..the pain started around 10-12 years I’m 30 and Dr’s are just starting to listen to me. Most of them try force feeding me pills though. I can’t afford the food I need to eat to slow down the flare ups either because I’ve been in too much pain to focus on a career. I meditate but that’s not enough to stop the feeling of being electricuted. Not to mention no one is testing me for the rare type of psoriasis that runs in my immidiate family..I’m really tired of being my avocate and being told idk what you want me to do for you. Not to mention pain managment said I can pick medical weed or opiates…not both even though opiates help with the sudden severe flare and weed helps control the daily symptoms since I can’t take any of the psychmeds or muscle relaxers. I really don’t know what to do with medicaid anymore.I’ve filed for disability…who diagnosed me..but since I work part time I got denied and I couldnt find a lawyer to take the case either…idk what to do anymore…

  10. Barbara Keddy Post author

    Dear Nikki:
    It has been a long historical journey for those of us with fibromyalgia to be finally recognized as not malingering. It is now known to be a malfunction of the central nervous system in those of us with life long anxiety and who are highly sensitive. Nightmares have plagued me since I was a small child and my anxiety began then too. The night terrors begin an hour or so after falling asleep. I awake gasping for breath. It is horrifying and I have never become used to them. Nightmares and weird dreams follow. I will admit that 200 mgs of Gabapentin helps somewhat. I believe all of us can commiserate with you and your concerns. CBD helps somewhat too.
    I wish I had a magic wand and could help you more. Know that you are not alone.

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