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Sleep, Trauma and Cannabis

Jessica del Rosso, MSW, RSW

REM Sleep and Trauma

Sleep is undoubtedly an important and undervalued part of our everyday lives. For many survivors of trauma, sleep causes immense anxiety and is often met with resistance from the body and mind. It is no surprise that many trauma survivors have used cannabis to cope with sleep anxiety and report having better sleep (Enochs, 2019).

REM (Rapid Eye Movement) is a deep part of sleep which occurs multiple times throughout the traditional person’s sleep cycle. It is also the part of sleep in which vivid dreaming occurs. REM sleep has been found to be the part of sleep most associated with learning and memory (Psych Central, 2019).

Interestingly enough, studies have found that cannabis use decreases REM sleep. Technically, this also decreases the quality of sleep experienced by those who use cannabis as a part of their nighttime routine (Babson, Sotille, Morabito, 2017).

If this is the case, why do so many Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) survivors use cannabis, claiming better sleep?

In my opinion, both as a survivor and as a Trauma Therapist, I believe this is because so many trauma survivors suffer from nightmares, night terrors and sleep paralysis as a result of the abuse they experienced. This very connection has been confirmed by Babson, Sotille & Morabito, (2017) which concluded that cannabis can be an effective aid for trauma survivors who struggle with trauma related sleep disturbances.

Despite a REM absent sleep being scientifically found to not be as effective, is good quality sleep for trauma survivors defined as sleep undisturbed by horrific dreams or flashbacks? I would argue, yes.

Other Effects

What are other benefits trauma survivors may experience from utilizing cannabis before bed? Leafly (2016), discusses how cannabis has been found to increase the quality of the breath while asleep due to the regulation of Serotonin.

Cannabis edibles can also help individuals stay asleep as edibles are digested differently in the body when compared to combustion, vaping or oils (Leafly, 2016).

Picking a Bedtime Strain

When picking a bedtime strain, Indica-identified strains are most common. However, it is less about Indica vs. Sativa and more about the terpenes within the strain. This is especially true given how unique each individual is, and the complexity of the endocannabinoid system.

The terpenes most commonly found to aid with sleep are Mycrene, stemming from the same family as mangos, hops and lemongrass, and Carophyllene which provides notes of cloves and pepper (Meadows, 2018). Interestingly enough, these two terpenes are also best known for their anti-inflammatory properties, making them beneficial for survivors who also struggle with pain and inflammatory-related complications (Kaplan & Jikomes, 2018).

Although it may be beneficial to take a regular break from consuming cannabis before bed to reach a REM cycle, for many survivors the lack of dreams, nightmares or night terrors may outweigh the benefits of REM sleep for a period of time.

It should be noted that when regular cannabis users discontinue their use, dreams have been noted to come back more vivid (Royal Queen Seeds, 2017). Due to this, a plan should be created to manage the effects of the dreams should they bring forward traumatic memories or bodily responses during times of sobriety (such as tolerance breaks or travel).

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