Sleep reactivity as a potential pathway from childhood abuse to adult insomnia

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Sleep medicine


BACKGROUND: Survivors of childhood abuse are prone to adult insomnia, but the mechanisms for this development are poorly understood. Abuse that occurs during sensitive developmental periods might affect risk for insomnia by impacting emerging stress regulatory processes. Sleep reactivity refers to the sensitivity of the sleep system to stress and is a robust risk factor for insomnia. Recent evidence shows stress exposure itself worsens sleep reactivity, thereby increasing insomnia vulnerability. In this preliminary study, we hypothesized the association between childhood abuse experiences and adult insomnia would be mediated through greater sleep reactivity.

METHODS: Community adults were recruited from the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic between June 2020 and June 2021 (N = 241, 88% female, M(age) = 39, SD = 13.40). Participants completed a cross-sectional survey that included the Childhood Trauma Questionnaire, Ford Insomnia Response to Stress Test, Insomnia Severity Index, and a measure of general COVID-19 stress.

RESULTS: Reporting more frequent childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse was associated with more severe insomnia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Only childhood emotional and physical (but not sexual) abuse histories were associated with greater sleep reactivity, which exerted an indirect effect on the relationships between these two abuse types and insomnia symptoms. These findings were robust to the effects of gender, age, and stress about the COVID-19 pandemic.

CONCLUSIONS: This preliminary study suggests recurrent emotional and physical abuse in childhood might promote later insomnia through heightened sleep reactivity. Stress management interventions could be important to prevent insomnia for abuse survivors by bolstering resilience of the sleep system.

Medical Subject Headings

Adult; COVID-19; Child; Child Abuse; Cross-Sectional Studies; Female; Humans; Male; Pandemics; Sleep; Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders

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