Losing a loved one is difficult. The grief that’s experienced directly after a loss can feel overwhelming, and at times unbearable. There isn’t a “normal” or “typical” way to grieve—everyone grieves in a way that’s particular to their personality and connection to the loved one lost; but at times, grief transforms into something much more complex and life-altering.
This transformation is called complicated grief. Complicated grief lasts long-term and can cause emotional and relational difficulties due to a severe breakdown in the processing of the grief and consequential mental distress. As found in a 2009 study, “Bereaved individuals with complicated grief find themselves in a repetitive loop of intense yearning and longing that becomes the major focus of their lives, albeit accompanied by inevitable sadness, frustration, and anxiety.” Complicated grief impacts 10% of bereaved people.
While there’s no way to know for certain whether or not a person will experience complicated grief, researchers believe that certain risk factors amplify the chance that a person’s grief will turn complicated—one of those risk factors being sleep disorders.
The Science Behind Sleep Disorders and Grief
Sleep disorders are defined as conditions that change sleep patterns, resulting in negative health impacts. One 2021 study revealed incredible findings about the connection between sleep disorders and a person’s likelihood to develop complicated grief.
The researchers knew from years of documented research that when grieving, humans experience sleep disruption; but what if a person was suffering from a sleep disorder pre-bereavement? What impact would this have on their mental state and grieving process?
To answer this question, the researchers looked at data from the multiyear Rotterdam Study (an ongoing prospective cohort study targeting cardiovascular, neurological, ophthalmological, and endocrine diseases). The study followed a group of middle-aged and older adults over time and logged various aspects of their physical and mental health.
For the purposes of their research, the team focused on participants of the Rotterdam Study who noted sleep disorders prior to the death of a loved one. From the information given by the participants, the team was also able to place the participants in two groups: those who experience what’s medically referred to as complicated grief and those who experience a “typical” grief response.
From this process, the team found that those who suffered from sleep disorders before the death of a loved one were more likely to be in the complicated grief group.
Sleep Apnea’s Impact on Mental Health and Sleep
There are currently 80 different sleep disorders known by health professionals. One fairly common and potentially life threatening sleep disorder is obstructive sleep apnea (OSA). When untreated, OSA can lead to associated conditions that severely impact a person’s health, such as heart disease and diabetes. This (unfortunately) common sleep disorder poses a real threat to sleep, and a person’s overall wellbeing, due to the fact that sleep apnea causes a person to stop breathing throughout the night. In severe cases, a person can stop breathing up to 400 times in a single night.
Sleep disruption of this severity can have lifelong negative impacts on a person’s brain. It can impair their ability to learn new information, harm neurotransmitters in charge of multiple physical functions, and hurt their emotional competency. When it comes to overcoming emotional trauma, sleep consistently comes up as a key player in recovery. In one study, researchers found that sleep deprivation resulted in subjects not only being unable to embed new information into their memories, but the subjects were also more likely to remember negative emotions than neutral or positive emotions. The same study reasserted that sleep deprivation leads to:
- Emotional difficulties
- Increased levels of irritability
- An increased risk of developing long-term PTSD
- The development of major depressive syndrome and the relapse of depressive and bipolar episodes
Because of consistent sleep deprivation associated with sleep apnea, those with the condition are more likely to experience mental health ailments and emotional impairments—including the development of complicated grief.
Symptoms of Complicated Grief
Have you, or someone you care about, recently gone through an impactful loss? If you also suffer from a sleep disorder, it’s important to be aware of your grief and the propensity for it to become complicated grief.
The symptoms of complicated grief include:
- Anger, uncharacteristic irritability, episodes of rage
- Inability to focus on anything but the loss
- Intense feelings of sadness, pain, hopelessness, low self-esteem, bitterness, etc.
- Self-destructive behavior
- Still feeling “trapped” by your grief months after the loss
- Suicidal thoughts and/or actions (If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 to speak with a professional counselor)
For people dealing with grief, the effects of a sleep disorder like sleep apnea can greatly slow down the recovery process. Fortunately, treatment is readily available. The first step is to get a screening from a trained sleep medicine practitioner, which you can schedule at Sleep Better Georgia by clicking here. From there, a sleep test needs to be completed, and then treatment can be prescribed.
By getting adequate sleep every night, a person gives their brain and emotions all the resources they need to heal after a traumatic event, ensuring that taking that next step toward a brighter future is much easier.