Sleep Deprivation May Reduce Risk of PTSD

Sleep deprivation is a general term used to describe a lack of adequate restful sleep. When it occurs consistently or repeatedly, this lack of sleep can have a number of harmful health consequences, including mental confusion, the onset of hallucinations and disruptions in normal memory function. While sleep-related memory loss has detrimental effects in most circumstances, it may prove to be beneficial as a preventive treatment for the anxiety disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to the results of a study published in 2012 in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology.

Sleep Deprivation Basics

Generally speaking, sleep deprivation is the result of some form of sleep disturbance. Factors that can lead to disturbed sleep include changes in one’s day/night routines, use of a variety of different medications (including antidepressants and certain nonprescription cold remedies), the presence of physical problems such as asthma or ulcers, heavy alcohol use, the presence of major depression, the presence of some sort of anxiety disorder, advancing age and genetic predisposition. In addition to memory impairment, hallucinations, and a reduced ability to think clearly, health problems associated with chronic sleep deprivation include reduced daytime alertness, a reduced ability to accurately perform daytime activities, an increased risk for involvement in work-related accidents, an increased risk for involvement in car accidents, relationship disruptions, and an overall reduction in one’s sense of well-being or quality of life.

PTSD Basics

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a form of major anxiety that develops a month or more after exposure to events that seriously endanger a person’s life or well-being, or seriously endanger the life or well-being of other people. Not all individuals develop a harmful stress reaction to the same situations or circumstances. However, a number of situations and circumstances are relatively likely to trigger such a reaction, including physical or sexual assaults that take place during childhood, participation in combat, indirect exposure to combat, exposure to a severe natural disaster and exposure to a life-threatening accident. Specific symptoms commonly found in people affected by PTSD include re-experiencing a traumatic event while awake or dreaming, going out of the way to avoid situations similar to a triggering trauma, and an abnormal, recurring overactivation of the hormone- and nervous system-based stress reaction known as the “fight-or-flight” response.

In the one-month period following a traumatic event, doctors don’t make a PTSD diagnosis. Instead, when trauma-related symptoms appear, they typically make a diagnosis of acute stress disorder (ASD), a PTSD-like condition that arises during or in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event. Depending on the type of trauma involved,  6 percent to 33 percent of affected individuals develop cases of ASD, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD. In turn, well over 80 percent of all people diagnosed with ASD go on to develop PTSD. Some people develop PTSD without developing ASD.

Therapeutic Effects of Sleep Deprivation

In the study published in Neuropsychopharmacology, a multi-university team of Israeli researchers used rats to examine the effects of sleep deprivation on any given individual’s risks for developing PTSD. They decided to conduct these experiments after noting the central role that memory plays in the eventual onset of PTSD symptoms. When denied sleep for a six-hour period following a prearranged traumatic event, a group of test animals involved in the study failed to show any signs that they remembered this event, and also failed to experience the short-term stress reactions that commonly lead to PTSD. A second group of animals in the study was allowed to fall asleep immediately after undergoing the same traumatic experience. They later showed clear signs of remembering the events, and also experienced the acute stress reactions associated with the later development of PTSD.


The authors of the study in Neuropsychopharmacology note the fact that people exposed to traumatic events are often asked to try to get some sleep in the immediate aftermath of those events. However counterintuitive it may seem, sleeping during this time period may actually promote the onset of PTSD by giving the brain time to form strong memories related to the source of trauma. Conversely, sleep avoidance or sleep deprivation during this time period may reduce an affected individual’s PTSD risks by reducing the strength of any trauma-related memories. The study’s authors acknowledge the preliminary nature of their conclusions; to further develop their findings, as of 2013, they’re making plans to study the effects of intentional, short-term sleep deprivation on PTSD risks in a first-ever group of human participants.