Divorce is not uncommon in American households, and can have lasting affects on those involved. The data shows that, in 2016, over 800,000 divorces took place in the United States, a rate of 3.2 divorces per 1,000 people.
Sleep patterns can be affected by social and other psychological factors. What happens in your day-to-day life plays a major role in your sleep health. So whether a divorce is anticipated or unexpected, your sleep patterns will more than likely experience some disruptions, which can make the process of divorce that much more difficult to deal with.
Quality sleep can help you process the emotions and lifestyle changes associated with divorce. We’ll explore how divorce can affect you and your family’s sleep, as well as what steps you can take to make sure that everyone is getting the best rest possible while undergoing and moving forward from this often dramatic life change.
Sleep Loss During Divorce
Couples in the process of divorcing are more at risk for developing sleep issues. In a study published by the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, 70 volunteers undergoing marital separation were assessed for sleep issues, and their sleep was compared with that of married individuals of similar age. It was found that all 70 individuals undergoing marital separation experienced less delta-wave sleep than their married counterparts. Delta-wave sleep occurs during stage 3 of your sleep cycle, and is the most restorative stage of sleep.
During delta-wave or slow-wave sleep, our bodies experience rejuvenation that does not occur during the other sleep stages, such as accelerated tissue repair. When we undergo a period of sleep deprivation, our bodies compensate for this sleep debt the next time we rest by increasing the time spent in slow-wave sleep, more so than any other sleep stage. This shows the importance of slow-wave sleep for our overall health and well-being. Because individuals going through divorce are proven to spend less time in slow-wave sleep than their married counterparts, we can assume that divorce plays a significant role in overall sleep quality.
One of the major reasons why divorce affects sleep is due to the amount of stress it causes. When we are under a significant amount of stress, our bodies react in an attempt to protect us from the perceived threat. Our central nervous system goes on the defensive, and this can cause sleep issues. Our central nervous system is closely tied to our circadian rhythm, which tells our bodies when to feel awake and when to sleep. When our circadian rhythm is disrupted, in can cause a wide variety of sleep issues.
Sleep After Divorce
It’s possible for sleep issues to persist after a divorce is finalized. It can take a long time to get used to the changes divorce brings, including no longer sharing your bed with a partner.
However, the same study referenced in the above section re-evaluated 61 of the original 70 individuals going through marital separation one year later. Of the 61 subjects re-evaluated, 42 of them had finalized their divorce within the previous year. For all of the individuals whose divorces had been finalized, the amount of time they spent in delta-wave sleep had improved. This suggests that sleep quality does improve after divorce, but the timeline for improvement will ultimately depend on the individual.
Relationship Quality and Sleep
Evidence suggests that the quality and stability of relationships plays a huge factor in sleep health. Arguably, the effects of divorce on sleep are part of a bigger picture dealing with the impact of social relationships on our sleep.
Sleep is more than a necessity; for those who share their bed with a partner, sleep is a form of social interaction. When your partner is tossing and turning or you have conflict in the bedroom, both individuals can suffer from irregular sleeping patterns and might even experience insomnia due to the troubles that arise at night by sharing a sleep surface.
According to a 2011 poll looking at adult sleeping habits, 70% of adults sleep with a significant other. Of that number, approximately 67% reported that their sleep was affected by their partner’s movements on some level. So if your partner is suffering from a sleep disorder, it can easily impact your sleep quality, which could potentially lead to further marital issues.
Whether you’re married or not, it’s important to recognize whether there are any negative aspects of the relationship that could be impacting your sleep, and deal with them. Divorce is just one trigger that can cause a variety of sleep disorders. Overall, it is the quality of any close relationship that can affect your mental health and well-being.
Sleep Problems Among Children Whose Parents are Divorced or Going Through a Divorce
Children whose parents are undergoing divorce can experience sleep issues of their own. Children have their own unique set of needs during this time. They need to know that their parents both still love them, that the separation is not their fault, and that they will be taken care of. If these needs are not being met, it can cause excess stress and anxiety.
This stress and anxiety can cause many sleep problems, including bed-wetting. Nightmares and waking up scared can be common among children going through a divorce. It’s only natural for children to be affected by the stresses of divorce, and one of the best things parents can do is to provide reassurance and support.
Once the divorce is finalized, sleep problems should slowly improve. While some children are able to adjust more easily, others may require therapy and/or counseling to help them cope with the changes divorce brings.
Dreams and Divorce
Many believe that dreams provide insight to what’s happening in our daily lives. When major life events occur, causing stress and changes to our routine, our dreams can reflect our feelings and insecurities. Studies suggest those individuals going through a divorce may experience a shift in the content of their dreams, and that dreams can play a significant role in helping these individuals work through this major life change.
However, the presence of depressive symptoms can have a significant impact on dreams. In fact, one study reported the effects of divorce and depression on dreams and found that those undergoing divorce who did not report depressive symptoms had longer, more in-depth dream states that dealt with marital status issues.
For those who did report depressive symptoms, their dreams were shorter and did not deal with marital status issues. Interestingly, when these individuals were re-evaluated sometime later and no longer reported the same depressive symptoms, their dreams exhibited positive changes including a healthier image of their dream selves in the marital role.
Furthermore, in the book Trauma and Dreams, a study looking at dreams as a method of problem solving and coping found that divorcing individuals currently experiencing depressive symptoms who incorporated their former partner into their dreams were less likely to experience long-lasting depression. For those going through divorce, trying to actively dream of your former partner has the potential to help ease depressive symptoms in the long run.
How Divorce-Related Sleep Problems Affect Your Health
Divorce, Sleep and Blood Pressure
We know that sleep is vital for maintaining a healthy immune system, but it can be very difficult for those going through marital separation to achieve the amount of rest needed to maintain optimal health. One area proven to be affected by divorce is blood pressure.
Studies have found recently separated people who experience sleep problems did not experience a change in blood pressure during the first 10 weeks of separation. However, those who continued to complain of significant sleep problems 10 weeks or more after separation did experience higher blood pressure.
This suggests that divorce can be detrimental to your health and well-being. Not getting enough quality sleep over an extended period of time not only impacts how you function, but it can also affect your health.
Sleep Loss and Mental Health
Though sleep problems and mental health have a reciprocal relationship, making it difficult to determine which issue is the root cause of the other, there is evidence to suggest that sleep loss is a huge contributing factor to depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues. By worsening your mental health, sleep issues can make coping with divorce all the more difficult.
Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders for those going through a divorce, and it can have a negative impact on sleep. If you’ve ever dealt with symptoms of depression, it’s easy to understand why experiencing a divorce can trigger and even intensify these symptoms. It’s important to seek appropriate treatment, such as counseling and/or medication. It’s likely your mental health will improve after your divorce is finalized, but every person is different and will have their own unique time frame and needs.
How to Sleep Better During a Divorce
Practice Excellent Sleep Hygiene
Any time a social or psychological factor like divorce is disturbing your sleep, it’s especially important to make sure you’re practicing the best sleep hygiene possible. This often helps a lot even if you didn’t need to do this before your divorce. As previously mentioned, dreams are a viable coping mechanism to deal with stress and trauma. Consequently, it’s important to make sure you’re getting good REM sleep every night to utilize this coping mechanism.
Adopting healthy sleep practices can aid in your emotional and physical well-being. Below we’ve listed some of the most important steps you can take to help prepare your body and mind for sleep.
Know how much sleep you need
Everybody is different when it comes to the amount of sleep that they need. The average healthy adult requires anywhere from 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Make sure you’re going to bed at a time that allows you to get the amount of sleep you need t function at your best.
Go to bed at the same time every night and follow a bedtime routine.
Establish a normal bedtime routine and stick with it. While you may stay up a little later on the weekends, your weeknights should be consistent so that your body can adapt.
Find a dark, cool quiet place to sleep
Turn out your lights and make sure your home is set to a comfortable sleeping temperature. Wear comfy clothes and turn off any noises or wear ear plugs. Black out curtains or a sleep mask may be helpful to eliminate any residual light from appliances or the city outside.
Dedicate your bed to only sleep and sex
Your bed is your haven and should be treated as such. Don’t bring work or any other stressors into your room. Save your bed for sleeping and intimacy only.
Limit screen time
Turn your phone and television off at least one hour before sleep. The blue light in your electronics mimics daylight and can make it difficult to fall asleep. Instead, try reading a book, journaling, or practicing meditation to help your mind relax before sleep.
Eat well, exercise, and get sunshine during the day
A proper diet combined with exercise will help clear your mind and make you look and feel great. Ample sunshine each day can help you cope with depression and regulate your circadian rhythm.
Avoid substances like caffeine and alcohol
The last thing you need to do at bedtime is brew a pot of coffee. Limit the consumption of alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and any other stimulants before bed for uninterrupted rest.
Use Relaxation Techniques While Trying to Sleep
As with many life-event induced sleep issues, often times the lack of sleep is a direct result of staying up in bed and thinking about your issues. Use the following relaxation techniques to distract yourself from your problems and calm yourself for sleep.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This method of relaxation helps to eliminate muscular tension through manipulation of the body muscles, using just the mind. It’s effectively been used to limit both stress and anxiety while relieving bouts of insomnia.
To perform this technique you’ll need to inhale and contract one muscle group (example your thighs) for 5 to 10 seconds and then suddenly release. Give yourself a short 20 second rest in between and slowly work your way to your next muscle group. As you release the tension focus on the changes you feel and imagine your stress flowing out of your body.
Make every breath you take count. Mindful breathing exercises can reduce stress and body tension. Follow these steps to practice mindful breathing to improve your mental health and clarity:
- Slowly breathe in and out.
- Each breath cycle should last at least six seconds.
- Breath in through your nose and out through your mouth allowing it to flow out your body effortlessly.
- Slowly release all of your thoughts, all of your to-do lists, and anything else that requires attention.
- Watch each breath as it fills you with life.
- Release the negativity and allow your awareness to work its way out into the universe as you exhale.
Counting meditation can help you enter into a deep state of peace while strengthening your mind. This ancient practice has been used by monks to harness the power of concentration. To practice counting meditation, follow the steps listed below:
- Sit in a chair with feet shoulder width apart.
- Place the edge of your right hand in your lap, palm up.
- Place your left hand palm up and place it in the right.
- Join thumb tips.
- Slightly tuck in your chin.
- Press the tip of your tongue to the roof of your mouth.
- Slowly inhale through your nose for 3 seconds and push out your belly.
- Release and pull in your belly as you exhale 4 seconds.
- Pause 3 seconds between each exercise. Repeat 5 times.
Unlike relaxation techniques you do on your own, guided meditation is led by a teacher or via video or audio instruction.
In guided meditation, you are lead through the steps of the practice by a teacher who will help you to understand the contents of the mind and the best approach for each individual exercise. The teacher can explain how the dynamics of meditation techniques work and can help you learn how to incorporate them into your daily life.
Whether you are new to meditation or want to expand your knowledge and practice of any of the other above relaxation techniques, having an experienced teacher by your side will ensure you gain the most benefits from meditation.
Get the Help You Need
If divorce is affecting your life and sleep quality to a point where your mental health is suffering, it’s best to consider getting help from a therapist or other professional.
Oftentimes it’s difficult to realize or accept that divorce can trigger depression or other mental health issues. Like any loss, people deal with divorce differently. If you’re having trouble coping, it’s time to seek professional help.
The following resources are available within the United States:
- Woman’s Divorce Resources in all 50 States:
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Therapist Locator
- Parents Without Partners: Non-Profit dedicated to helping single parents
- American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers
- Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts
Divorce impacts the entire family, and can negatively affect sleep. The added stress and changes that come with divorce can cause sleep disorders as well as mental and physical health issues. When going through a separation, it’s important to practice self-care and prioritize you and your family getting enough quality sleep.
Even though it may seem like things will be the same again, it’s more than likely that your sleep quality will return to normal after the divorce is finalized. Practicing good sleep hygiene and prioritizing self-care will help you and your family to get through this difficult period in your life.