Sleep and intrusive memories immediately after a traumatic event in emergency department patients

Sleep. 2020 Aug 12;43(8):zsaa033. doi: 10.1093/sleep/zsaa033.


Study objectives: Intrusive memories of psychological trauma are a core clinical feature of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and in the early period post-trauma may be a potential target for early intervention. Disrupted sleep in the weeks post-trauma is associated with later PTSD. The impact of sleep and intrusive memories immediately post-trauma, and their relation to later PTSD, is unknown. This study assessed the relationship between sleep duration on the first night following a real-life traumatic event and intrusive memories in the subsequent week, and how these might relate to PTSD symptoms at 2 months.

Methods: Patients (n = 87) recruited in the emergency department completed a sleep and intrusive memory diary from the day of their trauma and for the subsequent week, with optional actigraphy. PTSD, anxiety, and depression symptoms were assessed at 1 week and 2 months.

Results: A U-shaped relationship was observed between sleep duration on the first night and intrusive memories over the subsequent week: sleeping "too little" or "too much" was associated with more intrusive memories. Individuals who met Clinician-Administered PTSD Scale (CAPS) criteria for PTSD at 2 months had three times more intrusive memories in the first week immediately post-trauma than those who did not (M = 28.20 vs 9.96). Post hoc analysis showed that the absence of intrusive memories in the first week post-trauma was only observed in those who did not meet CAPS criteria for PTSD at 2 months.

Conclusions: Monitoring intrusive memories and sleep in the first week post-trauma, using a simple diary, may help identify individuals more vulnerable to later psychopathology.

Keywords: intrusive memories; mental imagery; posttraumatic stress disorder; single symptom; sleep; trauma.