Now that most of us are out of the immediate danger of these fires that ravaged our beautiful community, I’m hearing from many people that they are struggling with sleep: having trouble falling asleep, having trouble staying asleep, not getting restful sleep, waking at specific times, or even having active dreams, nightmares, and flashbacks.
This is due to what is called hyperarousal.
No, that’s not a sex therapy term (sounds fun though, right?); it’s a clinical psychology term for a set of symptoms. Those symptoms include an overactivated nervous system and hypervigilance: being constantly tense, “on guard” and ready to take action if a threat returns. And let’s face it: everyone in our community was experiencing hypervigilance for several days during the fires.
So, back to sleep. In order to fall asleep, one must slow their thoughts and body down and have some sense of feeling safe. Basically let go of their hypervigilance temporarily. That’s hard for many to do, whether you lost your home and are now sleeping somewhere new and unfamiliar, or you temporarily evacuated and are back home, or never evacuated at all. Again that’s because of needing a sense of safety and calmness in order to fall asleep and the fires disrupted that on a profound level. Even for people who still have their homes, their homes maybe were not safe to them just a little while ago. As Sonoma County’s only Certified Sex Therapist, I want to offer some suggestions to help you get safe, restful sleep again.
First of all, most Americans are touch-deprived, especially American men. We just don’t touch each other enough affectionately. We fear that touch will send the wrong message, make someone uncomfortable, or lead to sex when maybe our touch is trying to communicate something else entirely like comfort, nurturance, safety, trust, closeness, and connection. This is a wonderful time to practice non-sexual touch. As a sex therapist I know one of the most calming and connecting things is touch.
Restful sleep generally returns for most people after a trauma with time, calmness, routine, and quiet. It takes conscious, deliberate effort to achieve though. So if you’re struggling with sleep, ask your partner if tonight when you get into bed you can hold each other for 30 minutes. Invite your kids to snuggle on the couch with you when you watch a movie. Pet your dog or cat slowly and gently. Do these daily. This type of touch will truly bring healing and calm to your overstimulated nervous system.
Other touch-centered ways to help get your sleep back on track include:
1. Some sessions with a professional cuddler. Seriously. Especially if you’re single and have no one to cuddle. It’s been proven that holding another human being lowers stress levels and increases oxytocin, the calming and bonding chemical in our bodies.
2. Get a massage. Not the deep tissue/sports massage but the long slow strokes kind you find in Swedish massage. Hot stones would be lovely too, as their warmth and light pressure would relax tight muscles.
3. Order a weighted blanket online. The slight pressure you feel under one helps calm you. Use it before bed or anytime you feel anxious.
Some people find only temporary relief when they do one of these things and get frustrated that the positive effects don’t last. But I take a different view: hooray it worked! Your body has experienced an entirely different state than the one it’s been in for the last 2 weeks. What a great, promising start. You’re already on your way to feeling better. Now that your body has experienced that calm, it will be easier to remember it the next time you touch/hold/cuddle/get a relaxing massage/lay under your weighted blanket.
And as always, if restful sleep doesn't return for you in the next few weeks, please consider making an appointment with a licensed therapist who can do a thorough assessment for trauma.
Nighty night, Sonoma County.
If you've been watching the television news of Sonoma County's horrific fires, you may have noticed that the news teams are NOT at the evacuation centers interviewing evacuees. In fact, the evacuation centers have outright said "NO MEDIA ALLOWED." Interesting, right? Certainly different than in the past. Wondering why that is? Because as a profession, we're not sure if talking about a trauma in an unstructured way immediately after it happens helps -- we think it may make some people worse.
Here's an excellent article from The Guardian, a UK paper, that explains more.
So if you're: hosting survivors in your home; plan to; know someone who has been evacuated; know someone who has suffered immense loss in the last 72 hours; know someone who might suffer immense loss in the next few days; or you fit any of these categories yourself, please read this. There are some useful tips on what you can do instead that truly are helpful.
I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist and Supervisor located in Sonoma county, California.