Why Personal Loss Affects Sleep + How To Be Gracious To Yourself When It Does
How loss affects sleep.
The body and mind work synergistically, so when emotions weigh heavily on your heart, physiological responses are inevitable.
Major Allison Brager, Ph.D., a neuroscientist involved in the U.S. Army's Holistic Health and Fitness System specializing in sleep, explains that difficult emotions can activate the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the fight-or-flight response) and release cortisol, a stress hormone. This can lead to difficulty falling asleep within 30 to 40 minutes of trying, fragmented sleep in which you wake up and stay awake for more than 10 minutes at a time, and/or waking up prematurely in the early morning hours.
"Negative emotions can cause your brain and body to work overtime, resulting in a negative impact on your quality of sleep," Brager summarizes.
Bad dreams are also common in those experiencing loss, but according to Brager, they aren't necessarily a bad thing. Instead, they're a part of REM sleep, during which memories are processed and consolidated in the brain. "They are, perhaps, maybe the healthiest coping mechanism," Brager says.
"If memory is inadequately consolidated, there is a next-day impact on negative emotional valence that is seen at the deepest and more primal levels of emotional processing in the brain." In other words, nightmares can actually be an important physiological part of the emotional healing process.
So while you might wake up feeling out of sorts, enduring these bad dreams can do more good than harm in the long run. When these dreams creep in, give yourself a hug, take a shower, or sip something warm. Any little act of self-love will be self-soothing during this process.
The importance of sleep when experiencing a loss.
Unfortunately, when difficult life events disrupt sleep, it can affect the way you function on any given day. In a 2020 sleep research paper published by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, it was found that adequate sleep resulted in positive "valence," a heightened emotional state, while inadequate sleep resulted in negative valence. Meaning that when someone is getting poor-quality rest, they are more sensitive to the world around them.
The solution, then, is to clock in the highest quality of sleep possible during emotionally challenging times. Easier said than done, but making your sleep hygiene a priority will help. Try to set a sleep schedule and stick to it, create a soothing bedtime routine that relaxes your mind, body, and spirit, and keep your bedroom thermostat between 65 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Brager adds that taking daytime naps can also be helpful for restoring energy. You might also consider taking a sleep supplement before bed for extra support or wrapping yourself in a weighted blanket to further promote a sense of calm.*
The bottom line.
When loss is weighing heavy on you, the hours can seem to drag on forever. You may find comfort in knowing you're not alone, but even if solidarity brings you little solace, the most important thing you can do is to give yourself grace and be kind. Let yourself feel every emotion in the grieving process fully, speak to a professional for therapy and guidance, and try your best to rest. It's what your body, mind, and healing heart need most right now.
Julia Guerra is a health and wellness writer reporting for mindbodygreen, Elite Daily, and INSIDER. Formerly the beauty editor for BestProducts.com, she's contributed to Women's Health, Cosmopolitan, PopSugar, and more. A book worm and fitness enthusiast, her happiest moments are spent with her husband, family, sipping tea, and cuddling with her Tabby cat, Aria.