Eye Pillows & the Importance of Sleep while Healing | The Center for Victims of Torture

Eye Pillows & the Importance of Sleep while Healing

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Rosa E. Garcia-Peltoniemi, Ph.D, LP, is a senior consulting clinician CVT St. Paul Healing Center.

Torture intentionally and profoundly disrupts sleep. It is probably the most common problem amongst clients across all CVT programs (at our clinic in St. Paul and across international sites). “As a clinician, if I can only ask one question about how someone is doing, I will ask about sleep,” says Andrea Northwood, Ph.D, LP, CVT director of client services. I share Andrea’s view. The constant fear, physical pain, muscle tension and nightmares experienced by survivors of torture prevent restful sleep for many. This is a problem that sometimes persists for years. We also know that sleep is necessary for every aspect of human functioning and health; that’s why sleep deprivation is used by torturers to harm their victims. Thus, restoring restful sleep is an important, if not the most important, goal of rehabilitation from torture. Addressing post-traumatic nightmares, hypervigilance and sleep hygiene in psychotherapy is a complex process.

One simple measure that goes a long way in helping to treat the sleeplessness that might follow trauma: eye pillows. An eye pillow is a rectangle-shaped pillow about the size of a sleeping mask. Most are made using silk or other soft material and flax seeds. With just the right amount of flax seeds filling the pillow, the light pressure that the pillow places on the eyes lowers the heart rate. Eye pillows are used in several restorative poses in yoga – over the eyes or resting on the forehead. This pressure also stimulates the vagus nerve, writes Bo Forbes, Psy.D, in a description of the nerve that I especially appreciate. “The vagus nerve promotes the rest-and-digest system of the body which allows people to relax more deeply,” she states in Yoga Journal. “Interestingly, it also elicits the tend-and-befriend system enabling people to connect with others.” And this is very important in torture rehabilitation because of the deleterious effect torture has on people’s ability to trust others afterwards. Both systems, rest-and-digest as well as the tend-and-befriend, lead to the benefit of sustained “stress resilience” and happiness, Forbes adds.

The eye pillows are very popular at our healing center in St. Paul. A volunteer from the community, Laurie Bangs, sewed an initial ten eye pillows from a pattern, instructions and prototype that I made to distribute at a staff retreat. A good night’s sleep is one of the keys to good mental and physical health. It’s important to remain healthy and strong. Sleep is as necessary as eating, staying hydrated and breathing. It gives our bodies and minds the time needed to repair ourselves. When my colleagues at CVT and I help a client achieve restful sleep, we know they have taken a big step forward in their healing journey. Working double duty, sleep helps heal wounds - both mental and physical - of survivors of torture. There is no greater link between our bodies and health than sleep. Rest easy!


Anyone interested in crafting eye pillows to help CVT clients sleep better should reach out to our volunteer director, Beth Wickum at bwickum [at] cvt.org. You will receive a copy of the pattern and instructions to get you started on these effective sleep aids. Make one for yourself as well! CVT believes in proper self-care. We know these are very stressful times. The healing journey takes time, courage and knowing when to relax. 


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