Why Does Grief Affect Sleep? And What Can You Do About It?

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Dealing with the loss of a loved one often creates prolonged and severe grief responses that can negatively impact sleeping patterns. While not everyone struggling with grief will develop signs of lengthy and complicated grief, some will feel the effects beginning early on their grief, and the effects can last for weeks. 

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All age groups are subject to disturbed sleep after loss, but the reasons behind each vary significantly. Older people dealing with the death of a spouse, for example, will have a different set of grief responses than a young child who’s lost their parent or sibling. 

The types of grief experienced by most people range from normal to complicated grief. Depending on your unique grief reactions, you’re likely to experience some interruptions to your sleeping habits. Continue reading below to see how grief affects sleep and what you can do about getting your sleep habits back on track. 

Why Does Grief Affect Sleep?

Most bereaved individuals adapt to their loss without professional intervention. However, some people who have experienced traumatic loss develop symptoms of complicated grief over time that require intervention by grief professionals.

Persistent and severe grief reactions are those lasting more than six to twelve months after a significant loss. Many links to grief and insomnia and grief and exhaustion come into play when experiencing prolonged or complicated grief.

Causes of sleep interruption might include ruminating over the death or event and going over the details of your loss for weeks on end. Pondering over your loss is a natural and normal grief response in many bereaved individuals, and this may continue until you’ve made sense of what happened. Nonetheless, when it starts making a severe impact on your overall wellbeing, you may want to take action. 

Different Ways Grief Can Affect Sleep

Disturbed sleep patterns manifest in several ways. The severity of sleep disturbances fluctuates depending on how well you’re adjusting to your loss, your support system, and your overall outlook on death and dying.

Other contributing factors might include where you sleep and how safe you feel in your environment. Here are some typical ways grief affects your sleep and what to look for if you relate to any of these scenarios. 

Shorter sleep duration

Many internal and external factors affect grief and sleep patterns in bereaved individuals. Stress is a leading cause of disrupted sleep cycles, as well as fear and anxiety. Although these grief effects disappear gradually, some individuals with chronic depression might suffer from disturbed sleep patterns for several weeks or months after a loss. 

A healthy amount of continuous, uninterrupted sleep is eight hours. Grieving individuals may experience shorter sleep cycles with more frequent interruptions. The overall effect on those suffering through significant changes in their sleep habits is an increase in insomnia-induced stress leading to diminished health.

Lower quality of sleep

Along with shorter sleep duration, bereaved individuals may also suffer from a diminished quality of sleep. Contributing factors may include trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, leading to an overall less healthy sleep quality.

Poor sleep quality is a result of the emotional turmoil typically experienced following a loss. Some characteristics of poor quality of sleep may include trouble falling asleep, waking up earlier than usual, and restless or disturbed sleep.

Nightmares and other interruptions

Grieving people of all ages may suffer from nightmares and night terrors following the death of a loved one. Death impacts each individual differently depending on their age, maturity level, and past experiences dealing with grief. 

When sleep is interrupted by nightmares, subconscious thoughts and fears about how their loved one died or their mortality comes into play. Nightmares, night terrors, and being afraid of the dark are common effects of the grief experience, especially when the event was traumatic and unexpected. These symptoms typically subside on their own after a few weeks.

How to Deal With Grief and Sleeping Too Much

One of the complications of grief is getting too much sleep. Your body goes into protective mode and shuts down due to grief lethargy. When this happens, it's a sign that your body needs rest and respite from the ongoing, sometimes overwhelming grieving process. But this doesn't necessarily call for you to stay in bed all day.

Sleeping too much can be counterproductive to your efforts of getting through grief healthily. Several complications arise when you avoid your suffering by sleeping your feelings and emotions away. Here are a few tips to try to overcome the propensity to stay in bed all day. 

Set a schedule

One of the easiest ways to curtail the amount of time you spend sleeping each day is to set a consistent sleep schedule and stick to it as much as possible. Try scheduling ahead of time your daily bedtime and wake-up time. Set an alarm to remind you when it’s time to start winding down for sleep and when to get up. Make sure you don’t hit the snooze button for more than 10 or 15 minutes. 

Give yourself chores

Wanting to sleep in is a normal grief reaction that you should allow yourself the first few days post-loss. After a few days, however, you’ll want to ensure that your new sleep habits don’t become a routine. When you start to ignore your daily chores and obligations, your responsibilities start stacking up.

You might find yourself overwhelmed with grief and the emotions you’re dealing with. Enlist the help of your support team to keep you on track. You can help yourself by making a list of daily chores. Even when all you have is one thing on your list, that may be all you need to get started. 

Confront your pain

Sleeping too much at the onset of grief is an avoidance tactic that is sometimes necessary to make it through the day. Let’s face it, not everyone can deal with the death of a loved one or other significant loss and keep going as usual. One of the most important steps when dealing with sorrow is allowing yourself the time needed to take in what happened.

After a few days, you’ll likely come out of the initial shock on your own. If you find yourself not wanting to accept your loss, consider reaching out to others to talk about what you’re going through. 

How to Deal With Grief and Sleeping Too Little

On the opposite end of the grief-sleep spectrum is getting too little sleep. When you worry about all the things that happened and wonder why they happened to you or someone you love, your brain goes into overdrive. Too much brain activity at or near bedtime can cause you to develop insomnia or other interruptions in your sleep patterns.

Fear, anxiety, and the overall sense of doom are enough to keep you awake all night wondering how you’re going to make it through. You can get your racing thoughts under control to enjoy a better night’s sleep by making some small adjustments to your daily routine. Here are a few tips you can try starting right now. 

Get some exercise

Most people don’t think of going out to exercise in the middle of a crisis. And we’re not suggesting that you get out to the gym or yoga class when you’re deep in despair. Getting out and walking around the block, to the park, or even taking the dog out for a few minutes is enough to get your endorphins going.

Endorphins are hormones that are partly responsible for helping your body feel good and your brain feel happy. The side effects of moving a little each day include not only feeling better and clearing your head but getting better rest at night. 

Set up your sleep environment

Taking the time to set up a comfortable place to rest is necessary to get a good night’s sleep and part of your overall self-care routine. Whether your schedule has you sleeping during the day or night, having a clean, welcoming, and safe space to lay your head will improve your overall sleep experience. 

To help ease your grief anxiety and other related feelings and emotions, consider playing soft, soothing music, lighting a scented candle, or adjusting the lighting to what’s comforting to you. You can expect your sleep patterns to suffer adverse changes for several weeks after a loss. Gradually, you’ll start recouping your regular routines and sleep habits.

Talk to your doctor

Getting enough rest as you’re recuperating from a significant loss is crucial to maintaining your mental health and physical wellbeing. Many people need the added support of sleep aids or other prescribed relaxants to get them through the initial stages of grief. There’s nothing shameful about talking with your doctor about receiving a medical intervention to get you through your pain and sorrow. 

Grief and Your Sleep Cycles

Grief is the ultimate disruptor of your sleeping habits. Regardless of the type of loss experienced, you can almost count on losing sleep over it. Disrupted sleep patterns are a normal and healthy response to grieving and nothing to be overly concerned with initially. When others around you notice that your lack of sleep or sleeping too much interferes with the healing progress, it's time to ask for help.

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