Divorce and Sleep
Divorce is an unfortunately common experience: in the United States, around 40 to 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, which means that it affects tens of thousands of people each year. It is also one of the most stressful events a person can go through, and can seriously strain your body, mind, relationships, and overall well being.
Divorce impacts virtually every aspect of your life, but one of the areas it impacts most severely is sleep. The stress, anxiety, and depression caused by divorce can completely upend your sleep patterns, which in turn can make daily life more difficult. It can also intensify the anxiety and stress you’re already feeling about the divorce. If you’re having divorce-related sleep problems, there are steps you can take to get back to a good night’s sleep. In this article, we will explore how divorce can impair your sleep health, and what steps you can take to fight those effects.
How Divorce Can Affect Your Health
Studies have shown that divorce can have a negative impact on your health. In addition to the depression and anxiety that can accompany such a stressful, drastic, and emotionally loaded life change, divorce increases your chances of developing heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions. Long term research has found that the experience of separation or divorce confers a risk of poor health outcomes generally, including a 23% higher mortality rate.
As stated above, divorce also puts you at risk of serious sleep problems, both in the short term and, if left unaddressed, the long term.
Insomnia and Divorce
The stress from divorce often causes acute sleep disturbances, which are referred to as “transient insomnia.” Stress triggers a “fight or flight” reaction in the central nervous system, which in turn disturbs the natural circadian rhythm or the body’s way of knowing when to sleep and when to wake up.
In particular, a divorce can disturb delta wave sleep, or “slow-wave sleep.” This sort of sleep occurs in the third stage of the sleep cycle and is very important for your overall health. During delta wave sleep, the body regenerates in many ways, including rapid tissue repair. A key National Institute of Health study showed that people going through a divorce tend to get less delta wave sleep than married people. The study also showed that the same subjects had improved delta wave sleep once the divorce was finalized, which indicates both that the sleep problem was linked to the divorce, and that it is not necessarily permanent.
Another important element to consider is the role relationships play in sleep. Most married people share a bed, and sleep together much of the time. People get used to sleeping with their partner, and a sudden absence is bound to impact the sleep process, which had been a social, shared part of daily life until the divorce.
Mental Health and Divorce
Like any drastic life change, divorce can have a negative impact on your mental health, especially while you’re in the process of the divorce itself. It’s natural for the end of a marriage to cause deep depression, feelings of loss, and anxiety about the future. One of the main impacts of anxiety and depression on your everyday life is sleep disturbance, which only exacerbates the problem. Not getting enough quality sleep can affect your energy levels, your outlook on life, and your mood. People who experience insomnia are ten times as likely to suffer from depression, and 17 times as likely to suffer from anxiety.
Blood Pressure and Divorce
Sleep problems caused by divorce can have long term, direct health effects--most notably, an increase in blood pressure.
A 2014 study found a correlation between divorce-related sleep problems and elevated blood pressure. The researchers also found that the longer a subject’s post-divorce sleep problems lasted, the more likely they were to have elevated blood pressure. They concluded that continued sleep problems (after the point of around 10 weeks post-separation) produced a cumulative negative effect that raised blood pressure in the subjects.
The takeaway from this study is that while it’s perfectly normal to have some trouble sleeping for a period of time after your divorce, it’s essential to get a handle on it as soon as possible, both for your immediate and long-term health.
Tips for Sleeping Better During and After Divorce
As explained above, it is very likely that you will encounter sleep challenges while going through a divorce. However, you are not powerless in the face of those challenges, and there are proactive steps you can take to help you minimize the impact of a divorce on the quality of your sleep.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene
One of the main steps you can take in combating the effects of divorce on your sleep is to practice good sleep hygiene.
Sleep hygiene refers to the habits and behaviors you incorporate into the process of going to bed and sleeping, as well as the quality of your sleep environment. The things you do before sleeping and the environment where you sleep can make all the difference when it comes to how well you sleep, and how easy it is for you to fall asleep. Practicing good sleep hygiene can help you get more delta wave sleep and REM sleep, and all of the crucial, restorative benefits of both.
- Go to sleep at the same time every night: Our bodies crave consistency and respond well to patterns. Picking a set bedtime and going to sleep at that time every night will help reset your circadian rhythm, making it easier to feel tired when it’s time to go to sleep. Make sure to pick a time that’s not too late, so that you can get enough sleep even on days when you need to wake up early.
- Only use your bed for sleep and sex: One mistake sleep-challenged people tend to make is hanging out in bed too much. If you’re having sleep problems, limit your time in bed to sleep and sex. Spending time in bed reading or watching TV will associate the bed with those activities in your mind. If you limit your bed to sleep and sex, your body will automatically know what it means when you approach that area, and you will have less trouble relaxing into sleep mode.
- Ditch your phone: Many of us are extremely attached to our phones, to the point that they’re basically a body part. However, phones can be one of the biggest impediments to getting to sleep and staying asleep. Even having the phone within reaching distance of the bed may cause you to think about who could call or text, or what might be happening on social media. Your best bet is to plug your phone in across the room when you’re getting ready for bed so that you’re not even tempted to pick it up.
- Watch what you eat and drink before bedtime: There are certain foods and drinks that should definitely be avoided if you’re trying to improve your sleep. Within three hours of going to bed, you should avoid alcohol, caffeine, chocolate, and sugary foods. If you’re a smoker, avoid consuming any nicotine in that same time frame. If you’re prone to heartburn, stay away from anything strongly spiced, or any food you know to be a heartburn trigger. In general, try to give yourself a few hours between eating dinner and going to bed, in order to let yourself digest.
- Follow a bedtime routine: As we’ve mentioned, the body responds very well to routine. Establishing a set of behaviors that you carry out before bed every night will help your body know that it’s time to wind down. Brush your teeth, wash your face, put on your PJs, set everything up for the next morning, and add any other soothing activities or rituals to do right before bed. Doing the activities in your routine in the same order adds to the consistency, and can increase the routine’s effectiveness.
Learn Some Relaxation Techniques
Another way to get better, easier, and more restful sleep is learning relaxation techniques. Instead of lying in bed frustrated or worried, you can try a number of practices that help ease the mind and relax the body. They are designed to reduce physical and emotional tension and interrupt racing, disruptive, or disturbing thoughts. Though these techniques work better for some than for others, they are worth trying out, and only become more effective with practice. Here are a few popular relaxation techniques:
Reach Out and Learn More
Going through a divorce can feel overwhelming and lonely, and you may feel like you’re in over your head. It’s okay to feel that way, and it’s okay to ask for help. There are many resources, communities, and information networks set up to support people going through a divorce. Here are a few sites that you might want to check out:
- Psychology Today Therapist Locator: If you feel like you need someone to talk to, it’s important to reach out. This search engine lets you vetted therapists close to you. Therapists are listed by specialty, so you can find a professional who focuses on divorce and the related emotional fallout.
- APA Guide to a Healthy Divorce: Helpful advice from the American Psychological Association on how to minimize harm during the divorce process.
- DivorceCare Group Meetings: DivorceCare is a network of support groups for people going through a divorce that meet weekly in various locations (both in the United States and internationally).
- Survive Divorce: Survive Divorce provides practical information about the logistics of divorce, including money issues, custody issues, and legal advice.
- Divorce Force: This site can set you up with divorce professionals (therapists, coaches, counselors, legal advisors), and also offers articles and message boards.
- Divorce Well Podcast: If you’re a podcast person, definitely subscribe to Divorce Well. Host Christina Vinters (family mediator and former divorce lawyer) interviews experts about issues related to divorce, focusing on productive action and de-escalation of conflict.
Sleep Problems in Children During and After Divorce
Divorce can have many effects on children, including changes in mood and behavior. One of the parts of a child’s life that is most commonly affected during this time is sleep. A child whose parents are divorcing may experience trouble falling asleep. They also might revert to behaviors they had previously grown out of, such as bed wetting, refusing to go to bed, and waking up frequently during the night. It is very common for children experiencing divorce to resist sleeping alone, and to try to co-sleep with a parent or a sibling.
These problems can disrupt sleep for both children and their parents, and can cause added frustration and exhaustion to an already stressful situation. However, there are several proactive steps you can take to address these issues and create a more sleep-conducive atmosphere for your kids.
Tips to Help Children Sleep During and After Divorce
These six tips are concrete things you can do to help your child sleep after a divorce. However, it’s important to remember that some children will continue to have divorce-related sleep issues, and you may need additional help. In that case, it’s recommended and perfectly normal to seek the advice of a professional, such as a therapist or your pediatrician.
- Ease the child into solo sleep: To address the co-sleeping issue, many psychologists suggest a gradual approach. Let your child cuddle in your bed with their own pillows and blankets, with the expectation that they will go to their own bed once they’re falling asleep. Alternatively, lay down with them in their bed and as they drift off. This will help ease them into sleeping alone, and will also provide some quality time for the two of you.
- Keep a consistent bedtime routine at both houses: Children absolutely depend on consistency, and a regular bedtime routine is important for any child. It is even more important for children after a divorce since there’s already been a disruption to the consistency in their environment. Parents should agree upon and carry out the same set of bedtime activities at the same time in both their houses. Sleep problems are much more likely to stick around if there isn’t a singular bedtime routine, no matter where the child is sleeping.
- Encourage open expression of feelings: Your child is going through a lot of changes they cannot control and is experiencing many new and potentially difficult emotions. It’s important to let them know that they can tell you how they’re feeling, and to make them less anxious about those feelings by talking through them. It’s also important to talk them through the reasoning behind bedtime routines: kids appreciate and respond well to being “in the know”, and are less likely to resist a routine in the long run if they know the reason behind it.
- Make both spaces home: A large part of helping your child sleep is helping them feel comfortable in their environment. This means making them feel at home in both parent’s houses. If at all possible, make sure there’s a room for the child in both houses, a space that is theirs to come back to. Let the child participate in customizing the room, and don’t make any drastic changes while the child is at the other parent’s house. In the beginning, it is very helpful to provide an attachment object, like a blanket or a stuffed animal, that goes with the child to both houses.
- Don’t play the blame game: Remember in the end that this is all about the child and their wellbeing, and the ultimate goal is to keep them as happy and healthy as possible. If your child comes back from your co-parent’s house and is resisting sleep or otherwise acting up around bedtime, try to hold back from blaming your co-parent, especially out loud or in front of the child. Ideally, both parents will stick to an agreed-upon sleep routine, but in reality, sometimes that doesn’t happen. Though this may be very frustrating, try not to conflate anger or other negative emotions with sleep, and try not to make sleep a bargaining chip or a bludgeon between you and your ex-spouse. Ultimately, you are in charge of your child’s sleep health while they are in your home, so focus instead on reinforcing positive behaviors around bedtime when they’re with you.