They say that time heals a broken heart, but it’s difficult to heal when you can’t even get a good night’s sleep. According to psychologists, we should resist becoming too introspective after a breakup because this impedes our ability to relax and heal ourselves.
Undoubtedly, a relationship breakup will prompt some degree of self-analysis, and self-care is important for recovery. However, we must not spend too much time ‘soul searching’ as this will prevent us from moving on.
In this guide, we’ll discuss nine things you can do to improve your sleep after a breakup. We’ll describe how to exploit introspection for all it’s worth, and then shift your focus to the present moment to help you relax, unwind and sleep more soundly.
Why Can’t I Sleep After a Breakup?
Four factors can make sleep particularly tricky after a breakup:
Perhaps you can’t stop recalling happy memories, or you’re spending hours trying to understand how your partner could have betrayed you.
Ruminating thoughts often get worse in the evening, and this can make it hard to fall asleep.
After a breakup, it’s common to be racked with guilt or shook up by anger. These overwhelming emotional experiences are tough to process so are not conducive to a restful night’s sleep.
Stress puts the mind and body on ‘high alert’ making relaxation near impossible. Unfortunately, stress also forces us to put compassion and self-care to the back of our minds, so our health suffers.
Moreover, stress can increase the number of disruptive nightmares we have, making it harder to sleep through the night.
Breaking up with a partner is like quitting an addictive substance ‘cold turkey.’ Perhaps this is why we often turn to addictive substances to fill the void. These substances disturb our sleep further.
If you’ve recently broken up with an ex, you’re probably experiencing most, if not all, of these factors. Below, we’ll explore each factor in a little more detail.
Feeling Lost After a Breakup
When a relationship breaks down, it’s common to feel an overwhelming sense of loss. You’ve lost a partner, you’ve lost a part of your identity, and you’ve lost the opportunity to actualize the goals you’d planned for the future. This feeling of loss can be incredibly draining, so eating, sleeping, and self-care are put on the backburner.
Now, more than ever, it’s important to focus on self-care. In their book, ‘The Breakup Bible’ the authors advocate taking practical care of oneself after a breakup.
This involves establishing healthy eating and sleeping routines and leaning on friends and family for support. The authors argue that your focus should be on practical self-care, rather than introspective self-critique.
As we’ll explore, developing new routines is vital for improving sleep because new routines help to ‘ground’ us when we’re feeling lost.
Can’t Stop Thinking About a Breakup
You order coffee, and you’re reminded of your ex’s favorite drink. You go to dinner with your friends, and they ask you how your ex is doing.
You head home to relax, and the song playing on the radio is the song you’d sang together many times. It’s these kinds of reminders that cement that sense of ‘loss’ which is so disruptive to sleep.
According to psychologists, there are two types of ‘thought responses’ that most of us will experience following a traumatic experience. You need to challenge and reframe these thoughts. See if you can recognize either of these in yourself:
- Ruminating Thoughts – Why did It happen? What could I have done better? How did we suddenly fall out of love? When we ruminate, we’re trying to understand what has happened to us. To a degree, it’s useful to try and make sense of why our breakup has occurred. However, ruminating thoughts are not solutions-focused, so they prevent us from seeing the future in a positive light. If ruminating thoughts are left to fester for hours and hours on end, they will disturb sleep.
- Intrusive Thoughts – ‘I’m never going to find love again.’ ‘I’m going to die alone.’ ‘I’m never going to be happy.’ Intrusive thoughts are prevalent after a breakup. They are associated with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, but everyone experiences intrusive thoughts. Unlike ruminating thoughts, intrusive thoughts focus on the future. The predictions about the future are often unrealistic and irrational, so can be extremely distressing. Their potency is what stops us from falling asleep.
Stress and Post Breakup Insomnia
Stress is the leading cause of insomnia, and breakups are certainly stressful experiences.
When we’re stressed, the body produces more of the stress hormone cortisol. According to the Natural Medical Journal, heightened cortisol levels may be responsible for sleep disturbances, particularly in people who have experienced traumatic events. Stress isn’t just keeping your mind awake at night; it’s also about putting your whole body on ‘high alert.’
One of the significant causes of stress after a break-up is the threat to one’s locus of control. This is our perceived ability to cope with whatever life throws at us – emotionally, financially, practically, or otherwise.
If you’ve been with a partner for a long time, they’ve probably had a unique set of responsibilities in your relationship, and you’ve come to rely on them for certain things.
Now that your partner is no longer around, you may doubt whether you’re capable of coping with certain aspects of life. This worry can undoubtedly cause sleeplessness nights.
Waking Up in the Middle of the Night After a Breakup
When we go through periods of high stress, it’s common to experience nightmares. People who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are likely to wake up frequently throughout the night due to bad dreams. If your break up were sudden or traumatic, you’d probably experience nightmares for weeks or months after the event.
As we’ll explore, stress and anxiety management can help you to keep bad dreams under control. Moreover, if you’re having recurring bad dreams about an ex-partner, this suggests you’re pushing away feelings about your breakup, rather than processing them.
The nine steps below describe ways to process and move on from your breakup, which should limit the frequency of uncomfortable nightmares.
Break Up Withdrawal Symptoms
According to a study published in Scientific Research, our romantic relationships help to regulate our daily routines. The eye contact, physical touch, and conversations we share with our partner provide a predictable order to our sleep/wake cycles. When we go through a breakup, we suddenly feel imbalanced and dysregulated – both physically and psychologically.
Let’s assume that your partner has wished you ‘goodnight’ every evening for the last year, but now they’re no longer there. This will make you feel disoriented at bedtime– at least until you find new cues in your environment to help regulate your bedtime routine.
These feelings of deregulation are similar to withdrawing from an addictive drug. The symptoms are both psychological and physiological – that’s why it’s possible to feel sick after a breakup. Unfortunately, many people turn to sleep-destructive substances to ease the pain and fill the void.
How to Sleep After Heartbreak
In their book ‘The Breakup Bible’ the authors state that it is important to consider our physical, psychological, and spiritual needs after a breakup. A holistic approach to healing is more likely to improve your sleep because sleep is a complex process.
As we’ve mentioned, it’s also important to try and resist too much introspection. Introspection is useful, but practical self-care, living in the moment, and adopting an outward-looking approach is vital for getting your sleep back on track. Here are nine things that will aid sleep after a breakup:
Write a Letter to Yourself
Writing your thoughts down on paper will help you ‘work through’ your feelings, providing a much-needed form of stress relief.
Studies have shown that writing our thoughts down (as opposed to speaking about them) can be more useful for breaking the cycle of ruminating thoughts. So, if you’re constantly asking yourself ‘why has this happened?’ try unpacking your thoughts in the form of a letter.
There is a technique called ‘free writing’ that many have found useful for dealing with breakup trauma. To practice free writing, simply write anything and everything that comes into your head. Do not pay any attention to grammar, syntax, spelling, or readability.
Free writing is thought to be therapeutic because it allows us to express our feelings in an unguarded manner. In theory, ‘free writing’ a letter to yourself should reduce the potency of your nightmares because you’re letting the unconscious mind know that you are tackling your feelings.
Give Yourself Worry Time
When we’re feeling anxious, we can become overwhelmed by both intrusive and ruminating thoughts. This, in itself, can cause more stress because it stops us from concentrating on the other aspects of our daily life.
Although we can’t have total control over our worries, we can try to define how much time we spend worrying. Allocating a segment of the day as your ‘worry time’ can be useful after a breakup. Cognitive-behavioral therapists value this strategy because:
- It affords you an increased sense of ‘control’ over your thoughts, which is empowering and helps reduce anxiety.
- It stops you from becoming too introspective and encourages you to spend most of the day focusing on other things.
Both of these outcomes are important for well-being so that they will encourage quality sleep. So, pick an hour during the day when you’re going to worry about your breakup. If you find yourself worrying at other points of the day, just gently remind yourself that you’ll tackle it during your ‘worry time.’. The aim is to reduce the time spent worrying so that eventually, you’ll be allotting just 5 minutes of ‘worry time’ per day.
Cut Out Destructive Self Medication
When we’re forced to go ‘cold turkey’ on a relationship, it’s human nature to look around for something else to fill the void. Unfortunately, the things we choose to ‘medicate’ ourselves with are rarely positive for our wellbeing.
The obvious forms of self-medication include junk food, sugar, caffeine, cigarettes, and alcohol. None of these substances are going to be conducive to a good night’s sleep. However, some less obvious self-medicating behaviors can become even more destructive for sleep.
Some people throw themselves head-first into challenging exercise regimes or 60-hour working weeks to counteract their feelings of emptiness. However, when people discover that this new obsessive behavior is not filling the void, this leads to even more frustration.
Since your breakup, have you engaged in any new behaviors? Is it possible that you’ve become addicted to something that is disturbing your sleep?
To create a sense of balance, it’s essential to invest time in all areas of your life. This is one of the principles of good self-care, and it prevents you from becoming too introspective.
Improve Your Diet
When going through a breakup, it’s especially important to eat healthily. Specific foods and herbs control your mood. If your mood is positive, you’re less likely to experience ruminating and intrusive thoughts. You should limit all forms of processed sugar because the sugar will feed the ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ you’re probably already experiencing.
Studies have shown that going to bed very hungry or very full can encourage nightmares, bad dreams, and sleep disturbances. Try to balance your meals throughout the day so that you’re comfortably satisfied by bedtime. Looking after your diet is one of the few things you can control so use it as an opportunity to practice positive self-care.
Investing in our physical health is extremely important for sleep. This review published by Sage suggests that exercise is positive for sleep because it regulates our circadian rhythms, improves depressive symptoms, and promotes stress relief.
Exercise therapy is also the perfect opportunity to try out a new skill. Try signing up for a regular exercise class that runs for at least six weeks. Not only will you increase your self-esteem by mastering a new skill, but you’ll also expand your social circle and invest in your future. As we’ve discussed, socializing helps to ‘regulate’ our sleep/ wake cycles. Trying out different social activities will help you dissociate from your old relationship habits, and build new, meaningful routines.
Essential Oils for Sleep
Studies have shown that essential oils encourage sleep, improve your mood, and dampen the effects of anxiety. Lavender and Cedarwood are valued for their sedative properties so using these in a diffuser should help you sleep more soundly.
After a breakup, you should also experiment with citrus oils. These don’t encourage sleep per se, but they do reduce symptoms of anxiety and restlessness. They also help you to be more sociable and less withdrawn.
Scientists aren’t exactly sure why this is the case, but it probably has something to do with the vital ingredient limonene – which is thought to modulate cortisol in the body. So, try inhaling Orange, Bergamot, or Lemon essential oil first thing in the morning to boost your mood.
Mindfulness and Acceptance
Some people are skeptical about the benefits of mindfulness. Others are put off by the effort required to practice this kind of awareness. Although some effort is needed, consistent mindfulness practice can completely change your perspective.
Mindfulness helps you live in the moment so that you’re less likely to dwell on your past. Indeed, a recent study on Springer found that mindfulness helped individuals feel less lonely and more connected after a breakup. To practice mindfulness:
- Focus all your attention on the present moment (maybe you’re brushing your teeth, maybe you’re looking out of the window, maybe you’re cooking a meal).
- As thoughts and worries enter and exit your mind, try not to make any judgments.
- Every time you experience your mind wandering, gently bring your attention back to the present moment.
This is a basic introduction to the concept of mindfulness, so visit a reliable online resource for further guidance. Although mindfulness is practiced in the mind, it’s not a wholly introspective process. Being mindful stops you from ruminating and reflecting on the things that no longer matter. It’s helpful for sleep because it reduces sleep-disruptive, ruminating thoughts.
If you’ve been trying to improve your sleep, you’ve probably already come across the concept of sleep hygiene. Good sleep hygiene is vital for sleep because it helps to regulate the bodies’ natural rhythms. After a breakup, daily schedules are often turned upside down, so reestablishing consistent habits becomes even more critical.
If you used to spend time speaking to your spouse before bed, try and replace this with a new activity that you can commit to on a nightly basis. For example, find a good book to read, write in your journal, or take a relaxing bath.
One of the perks of a breakup is that you can be entirely selfish and design a new bedtime routine that works for you. Establishing new bedtime cues will stop you from feeling disoriented when it’s time to go to sleep.
Try to set your new routine around the principles of good sleep hygiene. Melatonin production happens in the dark, so ensure your bedroom is dark enough when you’re trying to sleep.
Alternatively, wear a quality sleep mask that blocks out the light. When you wake up in the morning, open the curtains, and immediately allow the natural light to flood your bedroom.
This will help to regulate your circadian rhythms. Although many people find it hard to get to sleep after a breakup, others find themselves sleeping too much. Using light and dark effectively will help modulate sleep – whether you’re getting too much or too little.
Give Your Time to Others
As mentioned, a breakup forces us to become overly self-critical. We turn our attention inwards and forget the needs of those around us.
Call up a friend you’ve not seen in a while and ask them how they are doing. Alternatively, spend some time volunteering for a cause that is close to your heart. This is bound to put a spring in your step and help to regulate your energy levels.
Giving time to others can help you sleep better because it will make you feel more balanced. Firstly, you’ll feel less isolated, so you’ll have less time to ruminate about your breakup.
Secondly, you’ll realize that other people are suffering too, which will put your own problems into perspective. Finally, you’ll realize that you are a worthy and valuable person even when you’re single. This realization is vital for emotional wellbeing.
Coping with Anxiety After a Breakup
Whether it reaches a clinical threshold or not, anxiety is hugely disruptive to daily life.
For many, it feels like a state of paralysis – the sufferer finds it challenging to move forward or get anything done. Ruminating thoughts often fuel anxiety, so try to modify any destructive thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. To cope with breakup anxiety, try the following tips:
- Reframe the breakup as an opportunity – Try listing all the positive things about being single. Alternatively, view your breakup as a ‘lesson’ you’ll keep in mind when selecting a future partner.
- Expose yourself to the situations you’re anxious about – Perhaps you heavily relied on your partner to deal with finances, deal with the DIY, or deal with the housework. Don’t shy away from carrying out these tasks yourself – you’ll discover how capable you are.
- Seek out information that disproves your intrusive thoughts – Perhaps you’ve doubted if anyone will ever love you again. Try to disprove this theory by making new friends and acquaintances at every opportunity.
Many people forget that sleep disorders have a mostly psychosomatic basis. By tackling our worries and concerns, it is possible to improve sleep. When it comes to dealing with breakup trauma, it’s important to try and move forwards rather than move inwards. Practicing self-care, being mindful, and feeling positive about your future will help you sleep much better after a breakup.