How Grief Has Amplified My Insomnia

If you’re reading this, you likely know what it’s like to struggle with sleep (or, you know someone who knows what it’s like to struggle with sleep). That means that your baseline understanding of and ability to rest – is not ideal.

On a good day, in a good week, during a good month – it may take you a long time to fall asleep, falling asleep may feel difficult or even impossible, you may wake up several times during the night, you may wake up and not be able to go back to sleep, you may sleep but never feel rested – it’s not great. I know, because I am you.

Living with insomnia means that I always think about my sleep

What impacts it, what it impacts, how to modify it, how modifying it might cascade both overnight and over time, and well, how to function without it.

Over the last 25 years, I have worked to understand my sleep disorder. I have talked to specialists, received therapy, taken medication, worked sleep hygiene programs, etc. I have never once ignored it, forgotten about it, or felt like it was normal.

How grief and trauma impact my insomnia

There have been times, however, over the years, when my insomnia has been significantly worse, much more difficult to manage and increasingly hard to function with.

After much work and reflection, I’ve realized that these seasons have coincided with grief and/or trauma in my life. Unfortunately, I have a laundry list of examples, but I feel like it's important to share a variety of them with you.

The first major loss in my life

At 15 years old, I faced the first and largest loss in my life – a coach, mentor, and father figure who died one night out of the blue. I had only tangentially been introduced to or associated with grief prior to this, and it was really, really difficult to work through the gaping hole in my heart.

Consequently, many nights I’d lay in bed long after bedtime, staring at the ceiling or the walls, trying to make sure I could remember my coach’s face, his voice, the things that we shared.

This disruption in my baseline disaster sleep left me constantly exhausted, and it also compounded my grief in a way that definitely made it feel more overwhelming.

Coping with a tragic event

When I was 22, my friend and sorority sister died by suicide in the house I lived in while I was asleep. I was awake for 3 days straight after the tragedy – insomnia in full force.

I was afraid to sleep, riled up by grief, trying to support and protect my friends, and just really tightly wound. It took several months after this for my nights to find some sort of routine again, and even then, it felt really miserable for a while.

A change in my health

The following year, I got sick. I began experiencing symptoms of Crohn’s disease. Although I wouldn’t be diagnosed for quite some time, this changed everything about my life – including my ability to rest.

My insomnia was triggered by my GI distress and the swirling mental and emotional ramifications of my health declining, and every night I came to dread getting into bed.

Medical trauma

At 31, I experienced medical trauma while I was in the hospital for my Crohn’s disease. After discharge, I felt like a shell of my former self, and as you can guess, my ability to fall asleep or sleep well disappeared. I spent months on the couch, under blankets, watching TV at all hours of the night while my husband slept beside me.

Broken heart and body

And most recently, this past year, I experienced 2 miscarriages. Both of which left my heart and my body shattered. My sleep patterns (along with my ability to focus) again turned upside down. During these seasons, I chose to work alongside my psychiatrist for support and used medication to support my sleep.

Deep feelings in a not-always-so-feeling world

Over time, I've learned that some of my insomnia is and always has been fueled by my overactive thoughts. It's become apparent that both grief and loss increase the speed and impact of those thoughts on my ability to sleep and to function.

As a deeply feeling person in a not-always-so-feeling world, I've felt both unique and alone many times during these struggles - especially in the middle of the night.

When my insomnia is unruly, I feel out of control in new ways. I feel less able to deal with life, let alone the feelings that come with grief and loss and trauma, and sometimes it takes a hard and intentional reset to adjust to a new normal.

Have you noticed emotions, grief, loss, or trauma affecting your sleep disorder? You're not alone.

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