Grief and Sleep

After a loss, such as the death of a loved one or a divorce in the family, a person can feel more stress than any other time of their life. A person may even feel “survivor’s guilt,” if they think the incident could have been prevented. Other people may have more than just transient grief and become clinically depressed. All of these problems may result in sleepless nights where you can’t sleep as your memories or mournful thoughts keep you awake.

Disrupted sleep makes it even more challenging to deal with grief and everyday life. You may find yourself forgetting to do important tasks such as paying bills or activities you used to do every day, such as making the bed.

If you do not return to your original sleep routine after about 6-12 weeks following the trauma, seek help from a professional. A physician, psychotherapist, or counselor may be able to provide you with the support you need to make it through a difficult time and regain a healthy sleep schedule. In the meantime, you can practice relaxation and meditation techniques to help you fall asleep more quickly. Try deep breathing exercises or taking a hot bath to relax the muscles. If you cannot fall asleep, don’t toss and turn for hours. Get out of bed and do something relaxing such as reading a book until you begin to feel drowsy.

During the daytime, make sure you don’t isolate yourself from others. Stay in the company of friend and family to try to keep your mind off the loss you have experienced. Engage in activities you enjoy and take up a new hobby to try something new. Attempt to avoid negative thoughts such as “I will never get over this” or thinking that lack of sleep will make you sick. In the short term, you may want to consider a natural sleep aid to promote sleep, such as melatonin, which can be found in foods like cherries.

After numerous weeks of restless nights, it may be time to seek professional help. You may decide to go to a sleep center or go to a support group to meet others who are facing similar life crises. Even an online forum can be useful if you don’t feel like leaving the house to meet new people.

Remember to practice good sleep hygiene while going through episodes of grief and loss. Associate your bedroom with sleep only and make an effort to avoid naps.

Some people who experience loss do not experience restless nights, but sleep around the clock. This type of sleep disorder is called hypersomnia, and is typical of clinical depression. If you feel like you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, are physically and mentally exhausted, and take frequent naps, you may be experiencing hypersomnia.

Here are other tips to make it through periods of grief and sleep normally again:

  • Keep a Journal - By writing even 15 minutes per day you can express how you feel and process your thoughts and emotions. You may decide to go back through what you’ve written and, over time, you’ll see that you’ve moved through your grief with each passing entry.
  • Take Care of Yourself - Pay attention to your personal needs, even basic needs such as preparing healthy meals. Try to get exercise for 30 minutes per day, even if you’re just walking the dog. Exercise and the outdoors can be beneficial for people experiencing depression.
  • Meditate - By using guided imagery, your mind and body will be transported to another place where you can be thinking about something other than your loss.
  • Avoid alcohol - Many people experiencing grief will turn to the bottle when they’re depressed, thinking it will somehow make them feel less depressed and forget about their problems. Not only is it ineffective, but it can actually compound sleep problems. Alcohol may help with the onset of sleep, but it increases nighttime awakenings and cuts into your deep phases of sleep as the alcohol metabolizes.
  • Indulge - Go to a movie, plan a vacation or schedule a massage. By pampering yourself, you’ll feel more energized and refreshed.
  • Accept Your Grief - Allow yourself to feel the emotions of sadness, guilt, anger, betrayal, longing and despair. Don’t try to pull yourself up by your boot straps and assume that your feelings will work themselves out on their own.

For more information about grief and how it may influence your sleep quality, call The Los Angeles Sleep Study Institute at 1-855-690-0563.