Working with Insomnia

Getting back into a positive sleeping pattern

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Around 70% of people experiencing grief, loss and/or trauma may also experience changes in their sleep patterns at the time. Some of these patterns can persist for a while but they can be resolved by understanding more about your individual sleep patterns that are not working for you. Once you have implemented the tools and strategies to assist these changes, you will then be able to take charge of your sleep once again.

There are two triggers for sleep. The first trigger is the one that we all know about: feeling tired and knowing you need to head off to bed. The other one is a bit more unfamiliar and that is that your body needs to be in a state of muscle relaxation before you fall asleep. So if you are very tired but feeling very tense or preoccupied with thinking, worrying and planning, it will be harder to fall asleep. For some people it will also be harder to stay asleep and for others they may find that they wake very early and are unable to get back to sleep.

Experiencing loss and grief can also result in some people having nightmares or dreaming about the event/s, which in turn can also lead to having a shorter sleep or poorer sleep quality. The experience of loss, grief and/or trauma can also lead to changes to what you are eating or drinking or what time you eat or drink.

Changes in your sleep pattern

Your night-time routines can also be impacted, with some people putting off going to bed and staying up until the early hours of the morning and then sleeping for a substantial part of the following day or napping during the day and not being able to sleep at night. You can work with one of our volunteer counsellors to assist you with your sleep during this time.

Trouble getting to sleep

Some people have difficulties falling asleep and find themselves tossing and turning or just lying there and staring at the ceiling or they find themselves thinking, worrying or planning, which results in their body going into a state of muscle tension, which then results in remaining awake.

Trouble staying asleep

Some people find themselves waking up overnight without a reason, waking up too early and unable to go back to sleep or waking up in the morning feeling tired, un freshened, with many people describing the sensation of having run a marathon overnight and feeling very unrested.

There are different tools you can use to track how you sleep at present and you can also use a sleep diary to track how much sleep you are getting There are many tools you can use to assess your sleep and these include the Insomnia Severity Index, the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) and the Epworth Sleepiness Scale and you can also keep a sleep diary. See attached:

How do I change the way I have been sleeping?

The most important aspect of changing your sleep pattern back to waking up feeling rested and refreshed is CONSISTENCY.

Whatever you decide to do, it is important to consistently follow the following solutions every day, without exception for three – four weeks to positively change your sleep patterns. If you do, you will start noticing changes to your sleep and notice how better you feel after the first week.  

Where to start?

Some people start with a sleep diary, which can track how you sleep, when you go to bed and what time you wake up and how you feel when you wake up. This can be useful for some people and your present sleep pattern may come as a surprise to you.

The first step

The first step to getting back into a good sleep routine deals with some of the practical aspects of managing the changes to your sleep cycle. 

The second step 

The second step is focused on how to take charge of your thoughts and feelings, which may negatively affect your sleep cycle

The third step

The third step is managing your beliefs around sleep.

So, let’s start

The most important thing about getting you sleep back on track is ensuring that you follow up with the suggestions consistently every day for the three – four weeks, that is probably the central most important thing you can do. Even though this may feel hard to do, it is very important that you make a plan to put this structure in place every day to see the difference in how you feel and how you sleep.

Helpful things to do before you go to bed 

First Steps:

  1. Given that you may find alcohol or smoking helpful and/or a support at present, avoid having any alcohol or smoking for three hours before you go to bed
  2. Ensure that you go to bed at exactly the same time every night for the next 3-4 weeks without exception
  3. Do not have any caffeine after 4pm – this includes coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, energy drinks, teas etc
  4. Do not consume any food containing added sugar at least 3 hours prior to going to bed
  5. Have your main meal at dinner time around 3-4 hours before you go to bed and avoid having a large supper before you retire for the night
  6. Put your clock or phone in your bedside drawer or turn it away from you and do not check the time overnight – as focusing on the screen to identify the time and the screen brightness makes you alert and more awake. It also sets up a negative thought pattern. For example, if you are still awake at 1am and you have checked your phone many times, you are more likely to think that you are not going to be able to sleep or that you only have a few more hours before it is morning and this worry, tends to end up with your body feeling tense, which in turn prevents sleep
  7. Never exercise before bedtime as it wakes you up. Try and exercise at least 5 hours prior to going to bed
  8. Do not drink anything for 2 hours before you go to bed, this includes water. Have as much water as you want during the day and stop around 7.30pm – 8pm.  If you feel thirsty, swish water around your mouth and then spit it out This tricks your brain into thinking that you have consumed water and you will feel less thirsty
  9. It is okay to watch television, as this is a passive activity, although try and avoid horror or cliff hanger thrillers
  10. Reading in bed is also good but again try and avoid reading for work or thrillers. Make sure that your bedroom is very dark when you go to bed for the night. If you need to get up overnight to go to the toilet, do not check the time

Second Steps

When you haven’t slept well overnight it is tempting to spend time on your bed, in your bedroom during the day and/or also fall asleep on your bed during the day. Just use your bed to sleep in overnight. If you start feeling sleepy during the day, get up and do something active and preferably something you enjoy and this will wake you up. You can also splash cold water on your face and this will also have the effect of waking you up. It is important that when your sleep is disrupted that you do not fall asleep during the day as this continues to disrupt your sleep cycle, which then has a negative impact on your sleep overnight. When you are feeling sleepy during the day, it is hard not to just give in and fall asleep but it is very important that you don’t and that you put off falling asleep at your natural sleep time at night. It is very important that you go to bed at exactly the same time every night for the next 3-4 weeks.

Often at night, there are very few distractions and it is easier to find yourself worrying, planning and thinking in bed at night. What ends up happening is that the more you worry, plan or think, the more alert you become and often the more tense you become, which in turn prevents sleep and makes you more awake.

Step three

When you are not sleeping well, associating going to bed can be linked with negative thoughts and beliefs. Some people, when experiencing grief, loss and/or trauma may for an example feel like they don’t have the right to a good night’s sleep. Once in bed, a person may believe that they are not going to get to sleep and although they were tired just prior to going to bed, once in bed they are suddenly wide awake and their mind is jumping from topic to topic, often unrelated.

Experiencing grief, loss and feeling is experienced differently by everyone. Often, these experiences can produce physical symptoms, which can result for example in feeling very tense. When your body is in a state of muscle tension, it is one of the things which prevent sleep. The tenser you become the more impossible it is to fall asleep.

Beginning solutions

One of the things you can do, which can give you more control over your sleep, is to increase your awareness about how tense you are, prior to going to sleep and put in place processes which can decrease your tension. The following technique can assist you with this. This exercise focuses on a time in your life where you felt happy, content, relaxed and safe. These four states in the context of the exercise can induce muscle relation and trigger sleep.

Please listen to the recording.


Practice this technique as many times as you require during the day until you remember all the steps. Once you remember all the steps you can then stop practicing it during the day and start using the technique as soon as you are in bed and ready to go to sleep. If you find your mind wandering (this is to be expected in the beginning), just gently bring yourself back to the beginning of the exercise and start again. You may need to bring yourself back to the beginning of the exercise many times, when you first start using this exercise at night as you need to remember that previously, night time may have been the time when you spent time thinking, worrying and planning, which prevented sleep. What you may be experiencing now, where your mind is constantly disrupting you is described by some people as having a light switch turned on in their head as soon as they go to bed. If this pattern, where you mind wandering has been in place for a while, expect to feel a little frustrated when it happens and you then need to take yourself back to the beginning of the exercise. Be aware that by becoming frustrated, just makes your body tenser. This knowledge does give you more control, if you feel any frustration, just tell yourself that this is to be expected and that it will pass and gently bring yourself back to the beginning of the exercise.