What Treatment Courts Should Know About Sleep, Trauma, & Substance Use

This is the fifth in our Beyond the Field series of articles that explore trauma and its impact on treatment court work. Treatment court participants can face challenges including complex health problems, poverty, discrimination, substance use, trauma, just to name a few. As a result, poor sleep may not rise to the top of the list of issues to address with individuals. Yet sleep disturbances underlie many of the physical, cognitive, and emotional struggles that can derail recovery. Over 80% of people who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) also have a sleep disorder, and adding substance use to the mix compounds sleep problems exponentially (Vandrey et al. 2014). Recognizing and targeting sleep problems as one dimension of treatment could not only improve health and well-being but may be key to helping people more fully engage in treatment court activities.


What are sleep disorders?


Sleep is essential to our ability to regulate our mood, make wise decisions, avoid accidents, encode and retrieve memories, and learn new things. Treatment court clients are expected to do all these tasks, and not doing so impedes their progress to graduation and blocks long-term recovery. Not all difficulties with sleep meet criteria for a sleep disorder, but sleep disorders affect people with PTSD at much higher rates than the general population. The most common sleep disorder is insomnia, which includes problems with falling asleep, staying asleep, and returning to sleep after waking. Other sleep disorders that commonly occur with trauma are nightmares and obstructive sleep apnea (Coloven et al., 2018).


How are sleep, trauma, and substance use related?

The relationship between substance use and sleep problems is fairly well studied, and treatment court practitioners and providers should be aware of the importance of addressing sleep problems within the process of recovery. Use of stimulants, alcohol, opiates (e.g., too much sleep and insomnia rebound), and marijuana withdrawal all can cause or exacerbate sleep disturbance. The self-medication hypothesis is well supported as well, as people who struggle with sleep may turn to substances to help. Much more research is needed to determine best treatment practices, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has published a useful resource to learn more (SAMHSA, 2014; https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma14-4859.pdf)


The impact of trauma on sleep is powerful. Re-experiencing traumatic events often occurs in the form of nightmares, and people become hypervigilant, or intensely on guard against future dangers. Depending on the nature of the trauma, people may have come to associate nighttime, darkness, and sleepiness with extreme vulnerability. We are never more defenseless than when asleep, and people who have experienced trauma form negative expectations and cognitions related to the inevitability of future harms.


There is growing evidence that PTSD, substance use disorders, and sleep disorders are bi-directionally linked (Vandrey et al. 2014).


For example, disordered sleep can make people more susceptible to trauma (e.g. accidents) and more likely to use substances to help them sleep; people with PTSD have symptoms that directly interfere with sleep (e.g. nightmares), and may misuse substances to get relief from both; and people who use or are withdrawing from substances find their sleep is disturbed and can experience heightened PTSD symptoms. Substance use offers quick relief from their distress, but then withdrawal from the same substances leads to sleep disturbance. These are just a sample of the dynamic relationships among these factors, but more research is needed to understand the interplay among them and find effective treatments to address all three factors in concert.


Assessing sleep problems

Whether an individual reports “trouble sleeping” or has a diagnosable sleep disorder, it is important for providers to assess sleep disturbances. While parasomnias (e.g., sleepwalking) and obstructive sleep disordered breathing may require specialists and technologies (e.g., polysomnography) to diagnose, there are validated self-report measures of insomnia that can identify triggers in order to promote use of coping skills direct sleep interventions (see Colvonen, et al. 2018). Sleep diaries are another tool that asks the individual to track their own sleep, recording bedtimes, wake times, sleep latency, night awakenings and total amount of sleep. The data collected can inform not only diagnoses but provide a road map for developing treatment plans. As sleep disturbances do not occur in a vacuum, it is essential also assess trauma symptoms and substance use at the same time.


Treatment of sleep disorders as they co-occur with trauma and substance use

Research shows that treatment of trauma does not necessarily lead to improved sleep, and the same is true for treatment of substance use. Identifying and addressing sleep problems early in treatment may provide several benefits for people with trauma. Since disordered sleep is widely accepted as a common problem, providers may focus on sleep as a “foot in the door” to express empathy for their distress and begin the winding therapeutic pathway forward toward.


Pharmacological interventions can be effective in treating sleep disorders, however there is a risk of misuse that should be considered. Obstructive sleep apnea, narcolepsy, parasomnias, and restless leg syndrome need to be addressed by specialists and generally are not relieved by talk therapies alone. Non-pharmacological therapeutic interventions, at least for insomnia, have been found to be more effective than medications in people with PTSD and substance use disorders (SAMHSA 2014; Colvonen et al., 2018; Vandrey et al., 2014).


Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I), is a brief (6-8 sessions) approach comprised of well-supported behavioral interventions like restricting sleep, stimulus control, such as structuring the environment to be more conducive to quality sleep. It also integrates cognitive therapies that target negative thoughts about sleep and other dysfunctional beliefs that interfere with sleep. The approach is heavily researched and is endorsed by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs (VA) and the American College of Physicians as a first line of treatment for insomnia-even as it co-occurs with PTSD. The manualized intervention can be administered with individuals or groups, and there are mobile technologies such as apps that supplement in-person treatment (e.g., the VA’s CBT-i Coach). Imagery Rehearsal Therapy, or IRT has shown promise in the treatment of nightmares in PTSD. A cognitive therapy, IRT involves “re-writing” of recurrent nightmares to make them less distressing and repeatedly imagining and rehearsing the new scenarios to make them less potent (Colvonen et al., 2018).


What Treatment Courts Can Do


  • Assure that the whole team is educated about the complex relationship among mental health, substance use disorders and sleep.
  • Ask participants about sleep troubles and have empathy for some of their cognitive and emotional struggles in this context.
  • Locate and contract with providers who are trained to assess sleep disorders and who can offer non-pharmacological, cognitive, and behavioral treatments. Although online programs and self-help books have been shown to help, the complexity of co-occurring disorders and treatment court clients are at high risk, high need symptoms.
  • Don’t expect sleep to get better just because mental health symptoms and/or substance use improves. Consider offering treatment for sleep, especially insomnia, separately but as an integrated part of treatment for other mental health and/or substance use disorders. If all treatments are not integrated, there is a real risk of playing a winless game of “Whack-a-Mole.”
  • At minimum, offer participants sleep hygiene information as part of their health and self-care and recovery services. While this information may not fully address many of the complexities of the trauma-substance use-sleep disorder cycle, sleep hygiene skills overlap and reinforce other skills participants are already learning in treatment, including mindfulness, relaxation training, exercise, and changing self-talk to be more accurate and self-compassionate.


Improving sleep in treatment court participants can potentially impact the cognitive, emotional and physical impairments that interfere with recovery. Participants could engage more fully in treatments for PTSD and other mental health struggles, as well as substance use interventions, improving the chances of successful recovery.


Colvonen, P. J., Straus, L. D., Stepnowsky, C., McCarthy, M. J., Goldstein, L. A., & Norman, S. B. (2018). Recent advancements in treating sleep disorders in co-occurring PTSD. Current Psychiatry Reports, 20(7), 48. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-018-0916-9
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). Treating Sleep Problems of People in Recovery From Substance Use Disorders. In Brief, 8(2), 1-8. https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma14-4859.pdf
Vandrey, R., Babson, K.A., Hermann, E.S., & Bonn-Miller, M.O. (2014). Interactions between disordered sleep, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance use disorders. International Review of Psychiatry, 26(2), 237-247 https://doi.org/10.3109/09540261.2014.901300

Written by  Sally MacKain, Ph.D.

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