Grief is an essential human experience. We’ll all experience grief in our lives, but we’ll experience it differently. Grief also pervades all aspects of our lives; our thoughts ae consumed by our loss, our appetite shifts and food can taste differently, and we’re less motivated to do things that we normally enjoy. It can take all our energy just to get through the day but getting to sleep can be just as challenging. When we go through grief, it’s common to also experience newfound insomnia, or to feel exhausted even if you’re getting enough sleep. However, understanding the relationship between grief and sleep can help you improve the quality of your sleep to take the first step towards feeling better.
What Is Grief?
Grief, or bereavement, is the distressing experience you go through after losing a loved one. This can be your wife or husband, or any family member, a friend, a pet, or anyone else you know. Losing someone close to you can be emotionally devastating, with other intense emotional and physical symptoms. These can include low energy, anxiety, headaches, digestive issues, and sleep problems. You can also experience disruptions to other parts of your daily life; you could be struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression, while things you’d normally do during the day can seem impossible. You could also find it difficult to concentrate, and you may struggle with daytime fatigue.1
There is no set time for how long anyone will take to feel better as each loss is personal. However, when symptoms last for more than six months, it’s diagnosed as Complicated Grief (CG). If you have CG, you could be experiencing symptoms of grief and depression, such as feelings of hopelessness, thoughts of self-harm, difficulty going about your everyday life, and even feelings of guilt.2
How Does Grief Affect Your Sleep?
It’s difficult to get a good sleep while grieving, especially in the days immediately after the loss. If you’re grieving, you may have distressing thoughts about your loved one, such as regrets, worries, anxieties, or sadness about your time together. It can also be hard if your loved one has passed away unexpectedly or in violent circumstances. Also, if you shared the bed with your loved one, it can be especially difficult to sleep without them.
Grief can develop into anxiety, depression, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Each of these conditions can negatively affect your sleep, with one quarter of those who have lost a spouse developing clinical depression or anxiety within the first year.3 You can read more about these conditions in our articles, ‘Sleeping with Anxiety’, ‘Sleeping with Depression’, and ‘PTSD and Sleep’.
Grief is traumatic enough on its own and can lead to disruptive physical symptoms for weeks or even months. One of these symptoms is insomnia, a sleeping disorder that makes it difficult to fall asleep, stay asleep, or wake up. As you are consumed by thoughts of your loved one, your ability to fall asleep has been disrupted. Read more about insomnia, and how to help ease the symptoms, in our topic, ‘Insomnia’.
You may also find that you wake up frequently during the night, and you could wake up after dreaming about your loved one. This is because your brain is trying to process the loss and your emotions. When you’re grieving, you don’t get the restful sleep that you need on a regular basis. This can make you sleep deprived, which worsens the intensity of many of the symptoms of grief. When you’re sleep deprived, everyday life can seem even more challenging. On a cognitive level, sleep deprivation affects how the brain processes memories and makes sound judgements, so you become more forgetful and more likely to behave rashly and make poor decisions. You’ll also have a harder time balancing your mood when you’re sleep deprived, and you’re more prone to stress, anxiety, and low moods. Sleep deprivation also affects you physically, as your immune system is compromised. This makes you more likely to get sick, which may only add to poor sleep quality.4
10 Ways to Sleep Better with Grief
Grief is a natural process, and something that you have to go through before you begin to feel better. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t do anything to help yourself. Taking control of your sleep will help you to stay healthy, and it’s a first step towards feeling better.
1) Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
CBT is an effective form of therapeutic treatment for anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Studies have found that people with Complicated Grief thought CBT helped to improve symptoms of insomnia and improved their sleep.5 During CBT, you work with a therapist to recognise your negative thoughts and behaviours that are making you feel worse, heightening anxiety, and encouraging insomnia. You’ll learn how to replace these thoughts and behaviours with healthier ones, which will help you sleep. Talk to your doctor about CBT to find out if it’s right for you.
2) Follow A Regular Sleep Schedule
Going to bed at the same time each night, and waking up the same time every morning, is a great way to help yourself feel in control. It’ll also encourage a steady sleeping pattern, which will reduce symptoms of insomnia and daytime fatigue. Avoid naps during the day but, if you’re absolutely exhausted, limit your naps to 20 – 30 minutes. This short nap will prevent you from falling into a deep sleep, but it’s enough to make you feel refreshed.
3) Spend Time With Friends And Family
While you’re grieving, it’s important that you spend time with people who love and care about you so that you don’t feel lonely. If you are feeling lonely, invite someone to sleep at your house overnight, or let your pet sleep on your bed.
4) Avoid Alcohol, Drugs, or Sleeping Aids
While they may help you fall asleep initially, many of these substances will actually disrupt your sleep. They can also lead to addiction and permanently change your sleeping pattern, and this can be hard to fix. Sleeping aids should be avoided, but you should discuss this with your doctor.
It’s not an urban myth – exercise really does make you feel better, both physically and mentally. Exercising also provides a distraction from the pain you’re going through, and you’ll tire your body so that you’ll fall asleep easier at night-time. Make sure that you exercise in the morning or early part of the day. Exercising in the evening will keep you from feeling rested enough to fall asleep. Also, try to exercise in the sunlight for an extra boost to your mood and energy. If you’re struggling with feelings of stress, anxiety, or depression, or you feel exhausted, exercising can seem like an impossible feat. However, it doesn’t have to be a vigorous workout – a walk will do you as much good as being in the gym. You can read more about how exercise helps improve your sleep in our article, ‘Five Ways Exercise Helps You Sleep’.
6) Eat Well
Like exercise, what you eat affects your mood and sleep, too. Comfort eating and indulging in fatty foods is tempting when you’re grieving but try to eat healthy foods and avoid overly sugary, junky, or fatty foods. Foods that don’t make you feel great emotionally and physically can disrupt your sleep. Try to incorporate rice, pasta, potatoes, and breads into your dinners as carbohydrate-rich foods help people sleep. 6 Other healthy foods that promote sleep include milk, cheese, yoghurt, fish, bananas, tomatoes, and nuts. However, avoid eating heavy meals a couple of hours before you go to bed. You should also limit how much caffeine you have. Drinking coffee during the day will keep you alert when you want to feel sleepy.
7) Have A Relaxing Bedtime Routine
While you’re grieving, having a relaxing bedtime routine helps you fall asleep easier, and it also gives you something to focus on. Having a routine will train your mind to recognise that it’s time to go to bed. When we lose someone close to us, our daily routine is disrupted. Establishing a bedtime routine can give you a sense of control again, bringing a sense of order back into your life. The routine must consist of relaxing activities, like a warm bath and reading for a while before you go to sleep. Be consistent with it every night.
8) Try Journaling
Writing your thoughts and worries down is a great way to relieve the burden of your grief. If you write about what’s bothering you and how you feel, you could feel as if your grief has lessened, even if only slightly. Or you could only write about happy thoughts and memories. Even the action of writing will calm your mind and give you something to focus on.
9) Avoid Electronics At Night
TVs, phones, tablets, and laptops emit a blue light that disrupts the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. This’ll keep you awake and may stop you from falling into a deep, restful sleep. Don’t look at a screen within one hour of going to bed – instead, fill this time with your bedtime routine.
10) Don’t Stay In Bed If You Can’t Sleep
If you’re still awake about twenty minutes after going to bed, get up and go to another room. Staying in bed will lead to your brain associating your bed with restlessness, and it’ll be even harder to fall asleep. In the other room, do a relaxing activity. Only go back to bed when you’re feeling sleepy. If you wake up during the night and can’t get back to sleep, don’t stress out – just get up and go to another room again until you feel drowsy enough to go back to sleep.
While these are ideas for how to help yourself sleep better, the best way to help yourself is to visit your doctor. As grief can disrupt your sleep and lead to stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as insomnia and sleep deprivation, it’s important that you let your doctor know how you’re doing. They will consider other ways to help you, such as medication. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may be referred to a specialist. Don’t keep your grief hidden – make sure you get the best help possible.