Getting back into a positive sleeping pattern

Changes in your sleep cycle

Around 70% of people experiencing grief, loss and/or trauma may also experience changes in their sleep patterns. These changes 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: your body needs to be in a state of muscle relaxation before you fall asleep. So, if you are very tired but feeling tense or preoccupied with thinking, worrying and planning, it may be harder to fall asleep, stay asleep or get back to sleep after waking very early.

Changes in your sleep pattern

Experiencing loss and grief can result in nightmares or dreaming about the event/s, which in turn can lead to having a shorter or poorer sleep.

Your night-time routines can also be impacted, you might be putting off going to bed, 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.

Trouble getting to sleep

When you do go to bed, it may be the first time in the day you have been alone with your thoughts and without the stimulation, noise and action of the every day, there is nothing to distract you from difficult and distressing thoughts. So you may find yourself thinking, planning and worrying. Some people describe this as though they have just switched on a lightbulb in their head and are unable to turn it off. Often, a person will identify that just before they go to bed, they are feeling exhausted and once in bed they suddenly feel alert, with their mind racing and unable to sleep.

You may find yourself tossing and turning or just lying awake staring at the ceiling causing your body to go into a state of muscle tension and keeping you awake.

Trouble staying asleep

Disruptions to different parts of the sleep cycle can also occur. Whereas some people may find it challenging to fall asleep, others may have difficulty staying asleep. You might wake up during the night without a reason, or wake up too early, unable to go back to sleep.  Some people are woken due to environmental factors such as heat, cold or noise, or they find themselves waking up to think, worry and plan, especially soon after the loss.  Others may find themselves waking up and just lying there, without anything particular to worry about but with a sense of alertness and feeling that they are unable to go back to sleep.

You end up feeling tired in the morning, some even describe the sensation like having run a marathon overnight.

How do I change the way I’m sleeping?

Changes in your sleep cycle are completely normal and to be expected.  The good news is that there are things you can do to resume the old sleep cycle you enjoyed prior to your experience of loss, when you may have been waking up feeling refreshed and rested.

You can start with a sleep diary, to track how you sleep, when you go to bed, what time you wake up and how you feel when you wake up. Your present sleep pattern may come as a surprise to you.

Then follow our three-step guide to dealing with insomnia.

Step 1: Preparation

Your better sleep checklist

  1. Avoid 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 3-4 weeks without exception
  3. Don’t drink 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 dinner around 3-4 hours before you go to bed and avoid a large supper before you retire for the night.
  6. Resist checking the time overnight – as focusing on the screen makes you alert and more awake. It also sets up a negative thought pattern. So put your clock or phone in your bedside drawer or turn it away from you.
  7. Never exercise before bedtime as it wakes you up. Try and exercise at least 5 hours prior to going to bed
  8. Don’t 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’s okay to watch television, as this is a passive activity, although try to 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.

Step 2: Set up positive sleep patterns

When you haven’t slept well overnight it’s tempting to stay in bed during the day or fall asleep on your bed during the day. Just use your bed to sleep in overnight. If you start to feel sleepy during the day, wake yourself up by doing something active, preferably something you enjoy. You can also splash cold water on your face.

Falling asleep during the day continues to disrupt your sleep cycle, which has a negative impact on your sleep overnight. While its hard not to just give in and fall asleep, it’s very important that you put off falling asleep until your natural sleep time at night.

Step 3: Decrease the tension

When you do go to bed, it may be the first time in the day you have been alone with your thoughts and without the stimulation, noise and action of the every-day, there is nothing to distract you from difficult and distressing thoughts.

This can be due to negative beliefs.  Some people believe they don’t have the right to a good night’s sleep, others think they are incapable of getting to sleep.  These beliefs can also produce physical symptoms, putting the body in a state of muscle tension – a major factor in preventing sleep. The tenser you become the more impossible it is to fall asleep.

To gain more control over your sleep, increase your awareness of how tense you are, prior to going to sleep and practice this technique to decrease the tension:

Relaxation Technique:

Focus on a time in your life when you felt happy, content, relaxed and safe. These four states can induce muscle relaxation and trigger sleep.  At first, you may find your mind wandering.  If this happens, remind yourself, this is very normal and take yourself back to the beginning of the exercise.  The sensation of frustration should pass.

As soon as you are in bed, with the lights out, in a comfortable position and ready to go to sleep, start the relaxation technique. As stated earlier, if you find your mind wandering, this is to be expected, bring yourself back gently to the beginning of the exercise and start again. Don’t get trapped into feeling frustrated if this happens as it is completely normal. If you allow yourself to feel frustrated, your body will naturally enter a state of muscle tension, which will prevent sleep even further.

If you find yourself experiencing negative thoughts, recognise that these thoughts will pass and it is to be expected that you may experience them. When you first start doing this exercise at night, you may find that you have to bring yourself back to the beginning of the exercise a few times.  Once again, this is normal and each night you practice this, it should decrease. If you fall asleep while doing the exercise that is great, it means it’s working!

Practice the steps

If you have been following the instructions on eating, drinking and preparation for sleep, you may begin to notice that the number of times you wake up and the times you wake up overnight starts to change and decrease.  If you do happen to wake up overnight, practice the relaxation technique.

The most important aspect of changing your sleep pattern back to waking up feeling rested and refreshed is CONSISTENCY.   Follow the steps every day, without exception for three to four weeks to positively change your sleep patterns. You’ll start to notice changes to your sleep and feel much better after the first week.