Having difficulty sleeping? Changes to your sleep patterns is common when experiencing grief and loss. Click here to learn how you can improve your sleep.

Most people experience difficulty sleeping at some point in their lives. When someone experiences grief or loss, they often experience changes to their sleep patterns as well. Some people might struggle to fall asleep, others might sleep very lightly and wake up often, others experience nightmares. This is a normal and common response, but if sleep problems persist they can effect your physical and mental health.
Grief and loss can cause prolonged stress means your body can’t easily relax, leading to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. If when you do get to sleep you are having traumatic dreams or nightmares, you are likely to regularly waking up and not getting the rest you need. Any change to your daily sleep routine can disrupt your body’s natural rhythms.

How to know if you have a problem

If you wake up feeling unrefreshed more often than you wake up feeling well rested, it’s a good idea to examine your sleep health. 
You can keep a sleep diary, tracking when you go to sleep, when you wake up, and how you feel when you wake up. If you been feeling stressed or anxious, the changes in your sleep pattern might surprise you. Download the free GriefLine sleep diary here.
Problems with your sleep are about more than just how many hours of sleep you get each night. You can use tools like Insomnia Severity Index, the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index or the Epworth Sleepiness Scale to help you assess whether you are getting enough good-quality sleep. These tools will help you to identify the different situations where you are likely to doze off and help you to consider how you feel about your own sleeping patterns and if this is effecting your daily life.

How to improve your sleep

The key to improving your sleep is consistency. Whatever you decide to do, you need to stick to your plan for at least 3-4 weeks without making exceptions. You need this much time to notice real change and start to form a healthy habit.
 
Step 1: Managing your evening routine
Set a specific bedtime and stick to it. Make sure you go to bed at exactly the same time, every single night, for 3-4 weeks. You can work out a helpful evening routine by working backwards from there.    
  • 6+ hours before bed: stop having caffeine. This includes coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, energy drinks, teas etc. You might notice the effects of caffeine in your body for 3-5 hours, but it can take up to 10 hours for your body to completely clear caffeine from your system.  
  • 5+ hours before bed: avoid strenuous exercise. Exercise wakes you up, so it’s not a good idea to exercise close to bedtime. Try to exercise at least 5 hours before bed. 
  • 4 hours before bed: have your evening meal, and avoid having a large supper later on. This gives your body time to digest your food so that it can begin to relax as you get ready to sleep. 
  • 3 hours before bed: avoid alcohol, smoking and foods containing added sugar. All these things have a negative effect on sleep quality, so it’s important to give your body time to get them out of your system before you sleep.  
  • 2 hours before bed: avoid drinking anything, including water. Have as much water as you want during the day, but stop as you get close to your chosen bedtime. If you feel thirsty, try swishing water around your mouth and then spitting it out – this tricks your brain into thinking that you have consumed water and you will feel less thirsty.
  • 1 hour before bed: when relaxing before bed, watching television is okay, as it’s a passive activity, but you should avoid doing so in your bedroom if you can. Reading in bed is also good, but it’s a good idea to avoid reading or watching anything especially exciting or stimulating, like work material, horror, thrillers or cliff hangers. 
  • Bedtime: make sure your bedroom is very dark. Put your clock or phone in your bedside drawer or turn it away from you. 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.
 
Step 2: Managing your daytime routine
Once you’ve got a healthy evening routine figured out, it’s important to maintain your progress during the day. 
  • Avoid napping: if you haven’t been sleeping well, it can be tempting to try to ‘catch up’ on sleep by napping during the day, but this will do more harm than good – sleeping during the day will disrupt your sleep pattern even more, and will have a negative impact on your overnight sleep. Even if you’re sleepy during the day, it’s important that you put off going to sleep until your chosen bedtime, and that you go to bed at exactly that time, every night, for 3-4 weeks. 
  • Avoid spending extra time in bed: if possible, your bed should only be for sleeping overnight. Try not to work, nap or rest there during the day, however tempting it might be – your bed should be a place your mind and body associate with overnight sleep. 
  • If you get sleepy during the day, instead of napping, try getting up and doing something active, preferably something you enjoy. This will get your body moving and wake you up. You can also try splashing your face with cold water. 
 
Step 3: Managing your thoughts, feelings and beliefs around sleep
Sometimes it might be that your mental or emotional state is interfering with your sleep, especially if you’re experiencing grief, loss or trauma. Some people might find themselves in a state of muscle tension, others might have a hard time trying to stop thinking or planning, others might develop some strong negative associations with bedtime, such as feeling as though they don’t have the right to a good night’s sleep. Any kind of alertness or distress in your body, whether it’s physical, mental or emotional, is going to make it very hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. You can also try our Tools for rest and relaxation for some practical ways to manage these yourself. However, it’s a good idea to talk to a counsellor or a doctor if any of these thoughts and feelings have been going on for a while.