Sleep and Loss

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Rosalind Cartwright. PhD
Rosalind Cartwright, PhD

Why is it hard to sleep after losing a loved one?

Loss of a loved one through death or divorce ranks at the top of stressful life experiences on many surveys. The turmoil of emotions can range from "survivor's guilt" (i.e. was there something I could have done to prevent this) to an episode of major depression.

Stirred up emotions from traumatic situations may cause unrestful sleep. Anxiety makes it hard to get to sleep and depression makes it hard to stay asleep long enough to feel rested.

How long will the sleeplessness last?

Sleeplessness after a loss is not definitive. It depends on the resiliency of the person and if you do not bounce back without treatment in 6 to 12 weeks, you should get some help.

What can you do in the short term to fall asleep?

Physical relaxation can be done by learning deep breathing techniques, taking a hot bath to relax the muscles, or getting outdoors during the day for a walk.

Psychologically do not isolate yourself; see your friends and try to clear your mind before going to sleep by watching a fun television program or reading.

What are the recommended methods of treatment?

You may want to consider cognitive-behavior therapy in the short term. Be aware of yourself so you don't get in the habit of telling yourself unhealthy messages like, "I will never get over this" or "If I don't sleep well I will get sick and die". Short term sleeping aids may also be useful to get over an acute problem.

How do you know when to seek professional help?

Professional help is best sought when the sleep problem is persistent over more than 6 weeks. Find a Sleep Center that has an insomnia program. You can find a list of sleep centers at www.sleepfoundation.org. There are some helpful books like Sonia Ancoli-Israel's All I Want Is A Good Night's Sleep .

--Rosalind Cartwright, Ph.D., is the chairman of the Department of Psychology at Rush University Medical Center, Chicago, Illinois, and the founder of the Sleep Disorders