Insomnia has been a companion for me for over a year now. I'm not sure whether I developed bad habits while I was caring for Spartacus and Tia in their final months or perhaps it's just the grief, but I'm having a hard time getting a solid night's sleep. They were two of my dearest friends; they were part of my life for years and years. They traveled the world with me, listened to me, played with me, and slept next to me. “Pet” seems like such an inadequate word to describe her. The fact that I'm losing sleep over their loss is no surprise, I suppose.
Of course, the problem is that everything I feel is 10 times worse when I haven’t gotten any sleep. I know insomnia is thought to be a common side-effect of the grieving process, but it doesn’t feel common. My brain is kinda like soup and I have a lot of trouble keeping a level head when emotions threaten to topple my equialibrium. A lack of sleep only makes this worse. Can you relate?
I’ve done the research, and sleeplessness is not to be ignored. Lack of sleep affects moods, decision making, problem solving, and the ability for our immune systems to fight off diseases. After a while, a lack of sleep starts to show in our overall health through illness, weight loss (or gain), and lack of energy. Without care, insomnia leads to memory loss, depression, a weak immune system, and even chronic pain.
I know some people are on the opposite side of the spectrum and sleep all the time. They’re always tired, no matter how much rest they get – to the point that they can’t get through their regular routine either. For some though, it takes so much energy that they have very little strength left over for anything else, and they even develop flu-like symptoms from being overtired. While this hasn't been my experience, the impact on health and wellbeing can be profound when we cannot get out of bed.
It makes sense to think people would need more rest: grieving is exhausting. So, how do we get a handle on our sleeping patterns so that we can rest more fully and move through grief in healthful ways? I've learned a few lessons that I'm hoping will help you on your journey through pet loss insomnia.
How to Decouple Stress from Insomnia
If insomnia is your biggest challenge while mourning, than one of the first things you should put on your self-care checklist is to deal with the stress that comes along with grief and loss. After all, one of the biggest blocks to good sleep is an active and troubled mind.
So I've put together some very basic things we all need to do to lower our overwhelm and stress levels so that we can overcome insomnia. I bet most of these practices will help a bereaved over-sleeper get back on track as well. They take some effort, but here’s the thing: proper amounts of rest are just as important to our mental well-being as our physical health, so the sooner we can get ourselves back into a positive sleep routine the sooner we can start moving past our grief. Ready to work on this with me?
No Caffeine or Alcohol After 3 PM
Two substances can muck with our stress responses: caffeine and alcohol. Believe it or not but caffeine has a half-life of six hours. That means that if I drink my last cup of coffee at 3 pm, I still have half the caffeine from that coffee at 9 pm. Alcohol on the other hand is relaxing, but once the effects of the alcohol wear off our bodies are left to metabolize the sugar that all alcoholic drinks have to varying degrees, which has an energizing effect. That's just stress by another name. Neither of these are helpful when someone is already experiencing anxiety and sleep issues. So limit or eliminate both caffeine and alcohol from your diet while you grieve to get past insomnia. Substitute water and tea to keep yourself hydrated and give yourself the best chance to slip into ZZZZs as quickly as possible.
Keep Electronics Out of the Bedroom
According to the experts at the National Sleep Foundation, our bedrooms are being overused and as a result, we're keeping our stress levels high right at the time when we should be slowing our brains down. Televisions, computers, and even smartphones have no place in the boudoir of someone who prioritizes rest. In fact, even looking at our phones and then going to bed is unhealthy: we should be giving ourselves a full hour of screen-free time before laying down. The blue light that most screens emanate has been shown to increase alertness, and that’s exactly the wrong message to send our bodies before bed. Even if getting too much sleep is the issue, you could still use this advice to get yourself back onto a sleep routine, as the screens may be interfering with your normal wake/rest cycle.
This is a self-care routine that works for insomniacs like me and those who oversleep as well, though the type of activity might differ. For me, I find yoga and hiking are best: my body and brain are overtired, so I don't want anything too vigorous as it would probably end with me getting injured. I’m sure either of these would do an over-sleeper good as well, though they may opt for something a bit more vigorous, like a run or bike ride. Either way, since natural light helps our bodies maintain a regular sleep cycle, so getting outside helps. Also, nothing vigorous after 7 pm – it keeps us from relaxing enough to get a good night’s rest.
One of the main reasons I can’t fall asleep at night is that there are all kinds of thoughts swirling through my head. These aren’t always conscious either; sometimes they’re just impressions or vague memories that simply make my subconscious stressed and keep me awake. A journal helps me externalize all this mental activity; it’s like giving my mind permission to let go and relax.
How to Promote Anti-Insomnia Relaxation
Now that you've worked on lowering your stress, it's time to think about how to up your equanimity so that you can combat insomnia from all sides. There are a few different ways to make your bedroom a haven for rest.
- Many yoga practices are designed with a good night’s sleep in mind. Doing some yoga about 30 minutes before bedtime helps me release the day’s tension and get in the mood for sleep. If yoga’s not really your thing, you may enjoy a guided meditation instead.
- Try relaxing sounds such as ocean waves or light rain in the background. Aromatherapy and soothing soundscapes can be quite relaxing – I like a nice lavender scent combined with counting my breaths.
- The classic rituals of a hot epsom salt (magnesium) bath and/or herbal tea have withstood the test of time for a reason: these are wonderfully relaxing self-care activities for me to let my body know that it’s time to rest.
- Clean up a bit. The clutter can be distracting.
- Keep it a little bit cooler than normal, between 65 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s between 18 and 20 degrees Celsius for my friends using metric).
These are the basics of lowering your stress levels and increasing your sense of calm. With these building blocks in place, it's now time to start about how you can intentionally cultivate a sleep routine that solves and protects against insomnia.
Address Insomnia with Cognitive Behavior Habits
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of intervention often used by mental health experts, but also by those who help people with insomnia and other sleep disorders. Essentially, CBT is a structured program that helps you to identify and swap out negative and/or harmful habits and thoughts that keep you from being healthy. Rather than relying on sleeping pills and other pharmaceuticals for getting through the night, CBT helps you retrain your brain so that you can naturally learn to sleep better.
CBT for Insomnia, or CBTi, teaches those struggling to get proper rest to handle the mental issues that result from sleep disorders. It helps to rewire the “racing mind” to help insomniacs deal with fear, worry, and anxiety related to not sleeping well.
Though you can go to a CBT expert for guided help, there are also now a few CBTi apps out there that may help those with less severe forms of insomnia. These are online treatment programs and apps for sleep disorders that come highly recommended. Here are a bunch that are rated well and have some scientific backing for their effectiveness.
Created by: BeHealth Solutions
Description: This is the most-well researched online program available according to Harvard Health, and it provides a personalized approach to addressing sleeplessness.
Supported by peer-reviewed research?: Yes
Effectiveness: After 9 weeks, program users fell asleep 43 percent faster, spent 55 percent more time asleep, and got over 6 hours more sleep per week.
App pricing: Prices range from $149 to $249, depending on the option.
Created by: Researchers at the University of Oxford
Description: The first online sleep program to verify results with a placebo group, Sleepio is a personalized six-week program guided by a virtual sleep expert named “The Prof.”
Supported by peer-reviewed research?: Yes
Effectiveness: Program users saw a 58 percent increase in daytime energy and concentration, woke up in the night 62 percent fewer times, and took 54 percent less time to fall asleep.
App pricing: $300 for one year’s worth of access, though the website suggests checking to see if your employer will cover it, or if you can take part in a test group.
CBT for Insomnia (cbtforinsomnia.com)
Created by: Dr. Gregg Jacobs
Description: A five-week, five-session program based on 30 years of research, this tool provides users access to the methods used by Dr. Jacobs at Harvard Medical School that were proven to be more effective than Ambien
Supported by peer-reviewed research?: Yes
Effectiveness: Improves sleep in 75-80 percent of users, and eliminates the need for sleeping pills in 90 percent of users.
App pricing: From $44.95 to $59.95.
Other service pricing: You could also purchase a 60 minute MP3 program for $39.95, and doctors can become certified in the method for a fee as well.
Sleep 960 (sleep960.com)
Not a single product, but an excellent reference tool for finding help online to deal with sleep disorders.
Tia and Spart were more than just pets to me; they were my friends, my confidantes, my companions, and a source of stability in my life. Even though it's been one year and 37 days since Tia left, and 146 days since Spartacus passed away, my sleep still suffers. It'll be a long road before I get back to normal, I'm sure, but I know my sleep is important and so I'm working on it. If you've got other programs that help break the insomnia cycle, please share!
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Health Disclaimer: I’m passionate about wellbeing and health but I’m not a medical professional, nor am I a licensed therapist. Any content you read on this site is intended for inspiration and for information only – by not means am I providing medical advice. Please consult your certified professional for personalized recommendations on the mental health or physical health ideas I write about.