Is Your Painful Childhood Making It Hard to Sleep?

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Marcus Aurelius / Pexels

Source: Marcus Aurelius / Pexels

The study participants included a nationally representative sample of just over 12,000 young people (average age 15.4 years at baseline) in grades 7 to 12. The researchers gathered information about participants’ “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) by asking them questions about painful experiences that can occur in childhood (here is an example of the type of questionnaire they used), and then followed up with them for more than two decades.

The majority of participants (about 75 percent) had experienced at least one ACE, such as neglect, incarceration of a parent, physical abuse, or being exposed to a parent’s problematic drug or alcohol use.

Those who had experienced major adversity in childhood were more likely to have difficulty sleeping as adults, and insomnia was increasingly likely the more ACEs a person had been through. For those who had one ACE, the odds of poor sleep in early adulthood was 43% higher compared to those who reported no ACEs, whereas the odds were tripled for those with four or more ACEs. The magnitude of these effects were diminished by mid-adulthood, with a 13% increase among those with a single ACE and an 89% increase for those with four or more.

Specific Adverse Childhood Experiences Linked to Poor Sleep

The researchers also examined which specific ACEs were associated with sleep problems at different life stages (adolescence, early adulthood, and mid-adulthood). Results revealed that the following adverse experiences in childhood predicted insomnia from adolescence through mid-adulthood:

  • physical abuse
  • emotional abuse
  • neglect
  • incarceration of a parent
  • parental alcoholism
  • being placed in a foster home
  • exposure to community violence

Childhood poverty was also linked to poor sleep, though only in mid-adulthood.

Why Does Early Adversity Affect Sleep?

There are multiple pathways from ACEs to bad sleep. They include:

  • Depression. Stressful events in childhood make a person significantly more likely to experience depression, and insomnia is a common symptoms of depression.
  • Anxiety. Similarly, ACEs predispose an individual to heightened anxiety, which is known to interfere with sound sleep.
  • Physiological arousal. Traumatic events can have long-lasting effects on the nervous system, as if the mind and body’s stress alarm is stuck in the “on” position.
  • Physical health problems. Health problems such as obesity and chronic pain are more common among those with a significant history of childhood adversity, and many health problems are tied to poor sleep.

As the study authors point out, more research is needed to better understand the mechanisms through which ACEs lead to insomnia.

For those who had major childhood adversity and have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, it can be helpful to talk with a therapist or psychiatrist. Effective treatment is available for the types of conditions that contribute to poor sleep, as well as for sleep problems per se (e.g., cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia or CBT-I).

You can search for a provider through the Psychology Today therapist directory.

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