A Good Night's Sleep

Having a hard time sleeping either during or after the divorce proceedings? Learn from Diana Shepherd how to best regain that balance in your sleeping patterns, so you can feel more productive in your daily life.

By Diana Shepherd
Updated: March 04, 2015
Health and Well-Being

Chances are, your sleep patterns have been disrupted by your divorce. Here are some suggestions on how to restore the balance. 

O.K. I admit it: I'm a charter member of the Insomniacs Club. I've always been an insomniac. At summer camp, I was the only eight-year-old kid who was always awake to greet the counselor when she returned to our cabin at midnight. Before I was a teenager, I had burned out several flashlights reading under the covers until 1 or 2 a.m. By the end of high-school, I was starting to miss an entire night of sleep from time to time; by the end of college, I could be awake and fairly functional for three days with no sleep at all. This was an advantage when a major essay was due, but not so great when I was awake for the simple reason that I couldn't get to sleep. It's a lonely feeling: when you're awake in the middle of the night, it feels like you're the only person in the world not peacefully asleep and dreaming.

Even if you used to be a champion sleeper, the experience of divorce is traumatic enough to disrupt anyone's sleep patterns. For some, this means sleeping all the time; for others, a good night's sleep becomes a distant memory. And if you're not sleeping well at night, you can't be fully alert -- let alone vibrant -- during the day. It becomes a vicious circle: the worse you feel during the day, the less productive you are; the less productive you are, the more you worry at night; the more you worry at night, the harder it is to fall asleep; then the whole thing starts again when you drag yourself out of bed the next morning. According to a Gallup Poll conducted by the National Sleep Foundation (NSF) in 1995, half of all American adults experience trouble sleeping at one time or another. Emotional stress can be a major sleep-stealer: feelings of sadness or worries make it particularly hard to fall or stay asleep. And even if you manage to fall asleep, you may not be experiencing the "right kind" of sleep -- the kind that refreshes and invigorates you.

Sleep states

Let's take a look at a "normal" night's sleep. After falling asleep, you move through several stages of light sleep to reach deep sleep, which is characterized by slow brain-wave activity and slower body processes. During deep sleep, your heart rate, respiration, and blood pressure drop, and your body secretes growth and other tissue-building hormones while minimizing production of damaging stress hormones. The deepest stages of non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep are the most physically restorative time for your body. After about 90 minutes of deep sleep, you move into REM sleep -- this is when we do our dreaming. REM sleep's job is to process information, fix memories, and restore the nervous system. Although you may think you're "out cold," REM sleep is actually characterized by a high level of activity: your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing are all similar to what you experience when wide awake. For the next few hours, you drift back and forth between deep and REM sleep, with the length of REM sleep increasing each cycle.

Scientists define the "best sleep" as having just the right mix of REM and non-REM sleep. You know the mix is right if you wake feeling well-rested and able to function at your peak. (Using this standard, almost no one I know is experiencing the best kind of sleep!) Most healthy adults need between seven and nine hours of sleep per night, although some people wake refreshed after only five and others need a full ten hours of sleep to feel fully functional. If you experience difficulty staying awake during boring tasks or situations, or trouble concentrating or remembering facts, you're probably not getting enough "quality" sleep.

Sleep and the immune system are inseparable partners. Our bodies repair themselves during deep sleep -- from healing those tiny rips in our muscles caused by a physical workout to growing hair to attacking infections or tumors that may be trying to set up shop. The US National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research reports that a "sleep problem can be a significant barrier to recovery, potentially exacerbating the primary illness."

Tips for a Good Sleep

  1. Lighten up! A little sunshine every day helps to reset your body clock. During the long Canadian winter, try light therapy to help reset your body's rhythm. If you're a night-owl, sit under high intensity lights for a couple of hours immediately after getting up. If you're asleep by 9 p.m. and up at 4 a.m. -- even though your alarm is set for 7 a.m. -- sit under the light in the evening, from 8--10 p.m. Light therapy may take a couple of weeks to start working, so don't give up if you're not "cured" immediately.

  2. Make a schedule and stick to it. Following a regular schedule helps to regulate your body clock, so go to bed and get up at the same time every day -- including weekends.

  3. Work it out. Regular physical exercise promotes sleep. The best time to exercise is four to six hours before bedtime, since it results in falling body temperature (a powerful sleep cue) when you want to go to sleep. Exercising shortly before bedtime, however, can inhibit sleep because it can leave the body temperature too high.

  4. Soak your cares away. A warm bath raises body temperature, which then falls, causing drowsiness.

  5. Eat, drink, and be merry -- but stop at least six hours before bedtime. One exception to this rule is a light carbohydrate snack (no protein, please), which tends to promote sleep. Alcohol might put you under, but it causes fragmented, non-restful sleep, and caffeine after early afternoon is right out.

  6. Create a ritual. Train your mind to wind down by performing the same bedtime rituals every night.

  7. Relax! Learn and practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or meditation. You can listen to audiotapes that guide you through the relaxation process, or ones with soothing music and/or sounds of nature.

  8. Check your problems at the door. If you're a late-night worrier (I belong to this club), take time to write down your problems and some possible solutions during the day -- preferably several hours before bedtime. Keep a notebook and pen by the bed to jot down urgent thoughts.

  9. Create a good sleeping environment. When you're stressed out, your central nervous system is hyper-aroused. This makes it harder to get to and stay asleep, since external cues (noise and light particularly) can easily wake you up. Block external light and noise, using thick curtains or an eye mask and earplugs, if necessary. Your bedroom should also be cool, so turn down the thermostat and put a fluffy comforter on your bed.

  10. Bed is where you sleep. Period. Don't work, read, or watch TV in bed, and if you're still tossing and turning after an hour, get up and move to another room. Read a boring book in your living room for a while, then go back to bed when you're feeling sleepy. The only exception to this rule is if you've found a new partner: then bed is for sleeping and sex. Period.

  11. Try herbal remedies -- such as chamomile, passion flower, valerian root, or hops -- for particularly stressful evenings. Before taking any medication -- and this includes herbal medicines -- discuss it with your family doctor.

  12. If possible, avoid drugs that disrupt sleep, such as some kinds of painkillers, decongestants, asthma drugs, steroids, diet pills, and diuretics.

Your Body Clock

You've probably heard people speaking of their "body clock," "daily rhythms," or "circadian rhythms." These rhythms are best demonstrated by those who go to sleep and wake up at the same time every day: they seem to have a built-in clock that switches them on and off at particular times. A hormone called "melatonin," made by your body's pineal (pih-nee-uhl) gland, seems to be responsible for setting the body's clock, therefore determining when we feel sleepy. This "regulator" hormone is itself regulated by exposure to daylight -- which "turns it off," inhibiting its production -- and darkness -- which "turns it on," stimulating secretion. As darkness comes and melatonin production rises, you begin to feel less alert and your body temperature starts to fall. When the sun comes up, melatonin levels drop quickly; in fact, levels are so low during the day that scientists often have difficulty even detecting it. Melatonin production is also linked to age: children manufacture the most melatonin, and production begins to drop at puberty.

Available as a "dietary supplement" in capsule form, melatonin generates $50-million in sales annually -- mostly to problem sleepers hoping for a quick fix.

According to Dr. Jeffrey Lipsitz, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Metro Toronto, exposure to bright light can help to reset your internal clock. For folks in the Northern Hemisphere, the long hours of darkness during the winter can exacerbate existing sleep problems because there's simply not enough light in our lives -- literally and metaphorically. The fact that you work in a well-lit office during the day just isn't enough. "Offices are dimly lit compared with sunlight," explains Dr. Lipsitz. "There's about 300-1,000 lux in ordinary artificial light, compared to 10,000 lux in bright sunlight." (A "lux" is a unit of illumination, one lumen per square meter.)

Two possible solutions to this are to go south in winter (which may not be an option given your finances or commitments) or to spend some time in front of a special bright light every day. Sold by various manufacturers under names such as "Daylights," these artificial lights can put out 10,000 lux. You use this high-intensity light at different times of the day depending on which type of insomnia you have, sitting in front of it to work, read, knit -- whatever. If you're a night-owl who just can't seem to get up in time to meet your morning schedule (like fixing the kids' breakfast or getting to work on time), spend a couple of hours in front of the light immediately after getting up. If you're comatose by 9 p.m. and wake an hour or two before your alarm is set to ring (this is known in some circles as "matitudinal" insomnia), use the light from 8 p.m. to midnight. Light therapy may take a couple of weeks to start working, so don't give up if you're not "cured" immediately.

Sleep disorders

There are about 90 different sleep disorders, most of which are quite rare. The most common ones are "insomnia" -- which is difficulty falling or staying asleep -- and "sleep apnea" -- which is characterized by snoring followed by periods when the sleeper stops breathing altogether. "Insomnia is like a headache," says Dr. Lipsitz. "It's a symptom, so you have to find the cause to treat it properly. Sleep apnea is disruptive to the sleeper and his or her partner -- so this sleep disorder can prove an impediment to getting back into a relationship."

Dr. Lipsitz points out that a failure to treat a sleep disorder can have a very negative impact on relationships -- present and future. "Your partner knows about it every time your sleep is disrupted, and he or she suffers through it with you. In fact, your sleep problem can actually become your partner's sleep problem, since his or her sleep is disrupted every time yours is."

The stress of divorce definitely makes existing sleep problems worse. "When we're stressed, we tend not to sleep well," says Dr. Lipsitz. "Then we rely on stimulants like caffeine or nicotine to wake us up, which compounds the sleeping problem the next night. It becomes a vicious circle: you need sleeping pills or alcohol to sleep, and stimulants to wake you up." If you're having chronic problems sleeping these days, you should probably see a specialist to arrive at a definitive diagnosis of what's causing your insomnia. It could be entirely stress-generated, in which case you'll need to learn and practice stress-reduction techniques -- such as meditation or relaxation exercises -- to break the cycle. Dr. Lipsitz points out that you might also have another sleep disorder masquerading as insomnia -- such as snoring or leg twitches that wake you up. "We can test for this in the sleep lab," he says. "Some people are not even aware that they're snoring, so they ask their doctor for sleeping pills, which actually makesthe problem worse."

Stress and sleep

"Stress is the body's mechanism for mobilizing energy," says Dr. Richard Earle, director of the Canadian Institute of Stress. "When you need to get 'psyched up,' your body produces a higher level of stress hormones, which give you the boost to meet deadlines or physical or emotional demands: for example, allowing a 90-pound woman to lift a car if her child is trapped underneath it." So stress has a real and useful role to play in our lives. But what if the stress-generator isn't an isolated incident like a car accident, but an ongoing situation -- such as facing the many different challenges of divorce? Just as love and marriage go together, so do stress and divorce. According to the noted Social Readjustment Rating Scale (SRRS), except for the death of a spouse or child, divorce produces more stress that any other life event. It ranks so high because it includes so many major stressors -- such as a change in finances and accommodations; sexual problems; and conflicts with ex-spouses, in-laws, and children, to name just a few.

To clear up any misconceptions, here's a short explanation of how stress works. To cope with a stressful situation, your body starts to produce stress hormones such as adrenaline and noradrenaline. These are "uppers," which your body will generate for two to three days to help you meet the challenges; then it switches to "downer" hormones such as cortisol to slow you down and keep you from burning out. "The problem is that stress is biochemically addictive," says Dr. Earle. "When you're down -- in the cortisol phase -- you'll may even seek out trouble to regenerate the flow of adrenaline to bring you back up. Beta endorphins go along with the adrenaline, so it's like a 'runner's high' -- it feels good."

And stress escalates, just like a high-stakes poker game. You're feeling down, so you slump in front of the TV. Then you start to worry ("what is my life going to be like after the divorce? Can I afford to stay in the house? Who will get custody of the kids? Will anyone ever love me again? I really should have completed my budget by now..."), so your body starts to pump in adrenaline to get you going again. A few days of running on this high-octane fuel, and it's time for the downers again. And the next time you start to worry, you're going to need even more adrenaline to get you up than before -- and more cortisol to bring you down. "Then your body finally decides it's not going to take it anymore, and pumps in a great whack of cortisol, and you become deeply depressed," says Dr. Earle. "The average adult can live with this escalating 'poker game' for several years before the whack of cortisol arrives to paralyze him or her."

There are emotional, physical, and mental prices to pay for playing "stress poker" for extended periods of time. Early warning signs that you need to get out of the game are: inability to concentrate; feelings of having to "keep moving"; short-term memory impairment; irritability; over or under-reacting to stimuli; a decrease in peripheral vision; hearing only negative messages, filtering out the positive ones (you're up to six times more likely to hear and see the negative than the positive when stressed-out); and faulty judgment.

In terms of sleep, it's obvious that all that adrenaline pumping through your veins is not exactly conducive to a good night's sleep. But there are things you can do to reduce the stress -- and therefore the amount of stress hormones you're creating. According to Dr. Earle, the single most important step to take is to create a worry list. "Contrary to your beliefs, the list of things to worry about is not endless," he says. "When you write it down, you'll probably find that you have six to fifteen items on your list. The first step is to 'know the name of the demon': what you are worried about specifically." So define the worry, then ask yourself these questions: 1) Can I change the situation? 2) Will I change the situation? 3) If the worst happens, what's the worst realistic effect it will have on me? 4) What's my plan? How will I handle it? "Write down your answers to these questions: seeing your own answers cuts stress by 50%," says Dr. Earle.

Take a deep breath...

Dr. Earle also emphasizes the importance of learning relaxation and breathing techniques to combat stress. "If you can't sleep, spending six hours in a state of deep relaxation can give you the equivalent of 80% of a good night's sleep," he says. His favorite technique is called "autogenic relaxation," which is a mild form of hypnosis.

Taught by many Yoga instructors, Pranayama are Eastern breathing exercises that can help you beat stress. The breath is slow and steady, in and out through the nose and into the belly. You sit with a straight back, consciously relax your body, and let go of thoughts and worries by focussing on your breathing. Here's one example. Dirgha Pranayama is called the "three-part breath" because you are actively breathing into three parts of your abdomen. The first position is the lower belly (between the pubic bone and the belly button), the second is the upper belly (between the belly button and the bottom of the ribcage), and the third is the chest (the ribcage). Inhale slowly into the first position, then into the second, then into the third; then exhale in reverse: third, second, first positions. Rest your hands on the first two positions to feel the belly rising and falling.

Body and mind

Dr. Rosalind Cartwright points out that it's equally important to relax both body and mind before you try to sleep. She recommends taking a long, hot soak in the tub before bed. "Soaking relaxes your muscles, but it also raises your body temperature. Then, if you spend half an hour relaxing after your bath, your core temperature starts to fall. And if you go to bed while your temperature is falling, it's like a bear hibernating -- you'll sleep longer and deeper." You need to do this every night for two weeks, then whenever you feel the need. "This will reset you body temperature naturally," says Dr. Cartwright, "which will make it easier to fall and stay asleep." She suggests using bath oil -- either unscented, or a relaxing aromatherapy scent, whichever you prefer -- to help keep the water hot and to keep your skin from drying out.

After your body is relaxed, you need to be able to "turn off" your thoughts. "Try counting backwards from 100, or rehearsing state capitals -- anything that's dumb and mindless but will block worry thoughts," say Dr. Cartwright. If you're a visual person, you might find imagery works better: imagine yourself on a peaceful beach or in a quiet meadow.

And so good night

So what should you do to help yourself fall asleep -- and stay that way until morning? Basically, whatever works for you and is not harmful to yourself or others. A good place to start is with a visit to your family physician, who can refer you to a sleep or relaxation center. And you'd be amazed how different life could be if you'd learn and practice daily meditation: it's a wonderful way to start the day, and can be done in the comfort and privacy of your own home. Bernice Todres, a wonderful and caring stress-reduction expert, taught me some mindfulness meditations last summer. I've been practicing them for a few months, and I'm happy to report that my insomnia is largely under control now.

I also make sure to get to aquafit three times a week -- regardless of how busy I am. I'm still amazed at how much I can squeeze into an already overcrowded schedule -- if it's truly important to me. I guarantee that you'll find the time to take better care of yourself -- exercising, relaxing, eating right -- as soon as you make your wellbeing a priority. Sweet dreams!

  • It's All Well and Good: A Wholistic Guidebook to Relaxation and Wellness
    By Beth Moses
    This desktop companion packs a lot of practical, entertaining, and enlightening information in a small package. Beth Moses teaches you to incorporate relaxation, wholeness, and balance into your life, offering sections on meditation, yoga, and massage therapy techniques; how to counter the everyday effects of stress in your life; exploring spirituality in healing and growth; and a 30-day guide to body-mind wellness. Call (800) 776-3871 to order a copy.

  • Present Moment, Wonderful Moment: Mindfulness Verses for Daily Living
    By Thich Nhat Hanh
    This is an inspiring handbook of "gathas," or mindfulness verses, designed to help you slow down and appreciate every moment of your life. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, offers poetic yet practical verses for everything from waking up to eating to brushing your teeth.

  • Sleep
    By J. Paul Caldwell, MD.
    Dr. Caldwell helps readers understand what makes or breaks a good night's sleep, gives an overview of the many disorders that can affect sleep, and offers clear advice on how to achieve better sleep. He discusses such topics as: why we can't get enough sleep; the effects of diet, exercise, and sex; the effects of shift work, jet lag and seasonal affective disorder (SAD); what causes snoring and sleep apnea; drugs and sleep; and what interferes and what helps. Featuring case studies, diagrams and side bars, this is a great guide to understanding the sleep process for a healthy mind and body.

  • Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life
    By Jon Kabat-Zinn
    The founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, Jon Kabat-Zinn maps out a simple path for cultivating mindfulness in your life. He speaks to those coming to meditation for the first time as well as long-time practitioners. You can also order his practice tapes: Series One (two tapes) includes a guided body-scan meditation that is truly amazing; and Series Two (five tapes) was created in conjunction with this book. (Although it has other uses, I often use the body-scan meditation to help put me to sleep at night.) To order the tapes, write to: Stress Reduction Tapes, P.O. Box 547, Lexington, MA USA 02173.

  • Your Present: A Half-Hour of Peace
    By Susie Mantell
    Written and narrated by Susie Mantell, this audiotape provides a guided imagery meditation for relaxation, and physical and spiritual wellness. Her warm, soothing voice carries you effortlessly into a place where you can let go of worries and start to heal yourself. To order a copy, visit www.relaxintuit.com or phone (888) NOW-RELAX.

  • The Canadian Institute of Stress
    P.O. Box 665, Station U, Toronto ON M8Z 5Y9; tel. (416) 236-4218 websites: www.ivillage.com/bodyage or www.stresscanada.org
    The Canadian Institute of Stress can measure your "stress fitness," and teach you not only how to manage stress, but how to use it to gain satisfaction in your life. Call or write for information, or take their "Vitality Quotient" test at www.ivillage.com/bodyage -- it'll tell you what your "stress type" is (from "Speed Freak" to "Basket Case") and give you the first steps to manage your kind of stress. Contact them to order a copy of their "Autogenic Relaxation" audio tape.

  • National Sleep Foundation
    729 Fifteenth St., Fourth Floor, Washington DC USA 20005; tel. (202) 347-3471; fax (202) 347-3472; website: www.sleepfoundation.org
    This foundation offers some terrific brochures on sleep-related topics. "The ABCs of ZZZs," "The Nature of Sleep," "Women & Sleep," and "Pain & Sleep" are particularly helpful. You can download their brochures at their website, or mail them a business-sized SASE requesting one or more brochures.

  • The Sleep Research Institute
    Regional Fulfillment Center, 2124 Broadway # 104, New York, NY 10023 website: www.institute-dc.org
    The Insitute has recently published a booklet entitled "Getting the Sleep you Need," which offers information and suggestions on what to do when you can't sleep. To receive a copy, send $5 to the address above, requesting the "Sleep Booklet #:SL-950"; the information is also available at their website.

  • The Sleep Well
    website: www-leland.stanford.edu/~dement/
    This website offers information to help you get a good night's sleep.


For more articles on your health and well-being during and after divorce, visithttp://www.divorcemag.com/articles/Health_Well_Being/.

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June 09, 2006
Categories:  Coping with Divorce

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