Sleep and Grief

Tips and Tricks to Get the Rest You Need

Submitted by Mattress Nerd

After a loss, sleep may be the furthest thing from your mind–or, you might find yourself trapped in bed. Grief is tricky. It affects everyone differently, and even for the same person, responses to grief can vary from one loss to the next.

Where Does Grief Come From? 

This one may sound obvious. Most people recognize that grief typically accompanies death; whether that may be the loss of a loved one, pet loss, the loss of a friend, or someone else in your life, grief is typically an expected response.

But there are numerous other losses people experience which can also cause grief. Loss of a job, an opportunity, or other financial loss. Loss of a home, a car, or other possessions. Even–and maybe especially–those that carry sentimental, rather than financial value. Loss of health or ability, when you or someone you know is diagnosed with a terminal or chronic illness or injury, can also cause grief. Clearly, it’s more common than most people expect or realize.

What is Grief?

Grief is a normal, natural reaction to loss. Everyone will experience it at some point in their lives. However, there are a lot of misconceptions about what grief is, where it comes from, and what it looks like.

Most people have heard of the “Five Stages of Grief,” originally developed by Elisabeth Kubler Ross and David Kessler: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While these stages are a great starting point, more recent studies find that the five stages don’t necessarily cover it. For example, some people may go through all of these stages, and some may only experience some of them, or maybe even none of them; for some, grieving looks completely different than these. Also, few people actually experience the stages in this order, and it’s even possible to move back and forth between them.

Another misconception is that grief is something we eventually “get over” or “move on from.” In fact, it’s very possible and even common, that grief is a lifelong process. While the intensity of emotions present in grief may lessen in time, most people still experience them now and then over the course of their life. There’s no “normal” length of time for someone to grieve, either. It may last for weeks, months, years… In short, grief is a unique experience for everyone.

Still, there are a few more common symptoms or experiences that can indicate that you, or someone you know, is in the grief process:

  • Bad dreams or nightmares
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Sleeping too much, or too little
  • Changes in appetite leading to weight loss, or weight gain
  • Low energy or motivation
  • Feeling emotionally “numb”
  • Digestive issues
  • Headaches
  • Difficulty concentrating

Sleep and Grief

While all of the above symptoms can be tough to manage, sleep problems can make the other symptoms even worse. Maintaining a good balance between lack of sleep, and too much sleep, can be especially tricky. You might have a hard time falling asleep, consumed by thoughts about the loss. You might have a hard time staying asleep, or have other sleep disturbances, due to nightmares or a disrupted sleep cycle. Especially if you find yourself sleeping too much, which can really knock sleep cycles off track, resulting in less restful sleep, or trouble falling asleep at your typical bedtime.

And sleep deprivation can be a serious problem, especially when it becomes chronic, or long-lasting. Cognitive or mental functioning can break down. You may become more forgetful, have difficulty concentrating, have a hard time making decisions, and be more easily overwhelmed by emotions. Speaking of emotions, mood changes and stress can also come from sleep disturbances. And, physically speaking, sleep problems can weaken the immune system, and even contribute to heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and cancer.

Given the seriousness of these symptoms, it’s important to talk to your doctor as soon as you notice the problem to ensure you are getting the right amount of sleep. Your primary care provider or PCP can diagnose and treat most sleep disturbances. You might also consider seeing a sleep specialist if insomnia or other sleep issues are not responding to treatment. And, especially if the sleep disturbances are linked to grief, seeing a psychologist or mental health counselor can help. In fact, treating sleep and mood issues, including grief, with a combination of medication and counseling is much more effective than either medication or counseling alone.

Home Remedies for Sleep

If getting in to see a doctor is not financially feasible, or if you’re unable to get an appointment immediately, there are a few recommendations for strategies you can try at home.

  • Reach Out. Talking to friends or loved ones about what you’re feeling can be immensely helpful. Isolation and loneliness is a surefire way to feel worse. Even if you can’t bring yourself to talk about the loss itself, you might consider talking about the ways it’s affecting you, or even just talk about something fun to take your mind off things for a while. If you don’t have a support system in friends and family, you can also reach out to mental health “Warm Lines.” It’s a common misconception that mental health lines are only for people who are struggling with self-harm or suicidal thoughts. Most crisis lines have a loose definition of “crisis.” If it’s causing you a great deal of distress, grief can certainly fall under that umbrella. “Warm Lines” are great for anyone who needs immediate help but isn’t in danger. You can find a list of Warm Lines by state here: http://warmline.org/. And, if you prefer to text rather than speaking on the phone, you can try Crisis Text Line, Available 24/7. Text HOME to 741741.
  • Exercise. This one is definitely easier said than done, especially when you’re tired, or suffering from lack of motivation due to depression, anxiety, or grief in general. However, studies consistently show that exercise improves mood, cognitive function, and sleep quality. And it doesn’t have to be a crazy, intense workout; a twenty-minute walk will do just fine. Exercise tells your brain to create more endorphins, a brain chemical which reduces both physical and emotional pain and also has sedative effects. Just make sure you limit your exercise to the daytime–at least two or more hours before bed.
  • Eat Healthily. This one can also be tough. When we’re sad or anxious, we’re more likely to eat too much and eat “comfort” foods, which are typically high in sugar, carbs, and fat. Think ice cream, candy, pizza, and other “junk” food. These foods can make us feel better short term by telling the brain to create more of the “reward” chemical dopamine. But in the long run, they are much more likely to keep you awake. Instead, try sleep-inducing foods that contain tryptophan, carbohydrates, calcium, magnesium, melatonin and vitamin B6. This includes things like milk, eggs, cheese, fish, cherries, bananas, nuts, and whole grains. As a bonus, many of these help you feel full longer, meaning you won’t wake up in the middle of the night with a growling stomach. As with exercise, try not to eat right before bed–aim to eat dinner a couple of hours before you hit the hay.
  • Avoid Self-Medicating. Caffeine might help you get through the day when you’re sleep deprived, but it will also make it that much harder to fall asleep at night. If you absolutely need it in the morning, that’s okay for most people–just try to stop caffeine consumption by noon. You should also avoid recreational drugs and alcohol. Just like comfort foods, they may make you feel better short-term, but they can also decrease your ability to fall asleep and stay asleep, and/or impact sleep quality by keeping you from reaching the restorative “deep sleep” cycle. Finally, talk to your doctor before trying over the counter sleep aids. They’ll be able to help you determine how much to take, if any, so that they don’t disrupt your normal sleep cycle.
  • Stick to a Sleep Schedule. Try to avoid naps if at all possible. If you absolutely can’t stay awake, limit yourself to 20-30 minute “power” naps. Make sure you’re going to bed and waking up at the same times every day. If you need to, put your alarm clock or phone out of arm’s reach to avoid the sweet temptation of the snooze button!
  • TLC Your Sleep Environment. Different things work for different people, but generally keeping the temperature cool, quiet, and dark is recommended. You might add soft, calm music or white noise, and/or some aromatherapy. Lavender is a great choice for sleep. You should also eliminate screens in your sleep environment. The blue light from phones, tablets, computers, and TV’s can really disrupt your brain’s natural sleep cycle. Try not to use screens in the hour before bed–instead, sit in a warm bath, drink some herbal tea, read a book (yes, a real book, your e-reader doesn’t count!) practice light yoga, deep breathing, or meditation.

Final Thoughts

Grief can be a terrible experience. But it doesn’t have to be a sleepless one. These tips, tricks and resources can help make sure you get the right amount of sleep, but if they don’t, make sure you see your doctor or therapist. You don’t have to go it alone.


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