Why Insomnia is Common After a Breakup: (And How to Fix)
A broken heart can affect everyone differently, but one of the most common side effects is sleep trouble.
The abrupt end of a relationship is one of the most stressful and potentially traumatic experiences that people experience, and can take months (or longer) to fully recover from.
While there’s no instant solution, there are steps someone can take after a breakup to get their sleep back on track.
How Common is Insomnia After a Breakup?
In a study of the causes of insomnia, it was found that (1):
The most common precipitants of insomnia were significant losses through separation, divorce, or the death of a loved one.
Other studies have found similar results.
In a study of just under 700 nursing assistants, who often have sleep trouble, it was found that those with a “breakup of a love relationship” were 3.32 times more likely to have insomnia symptoms (2). In particular, most find it hard to fall asleep.
That was the number one predictor, even more than having “severe financial problems,” which had an odds ratio of 2.38.
A breakup leads to high levels of stress, which can drastically alter the stress hormone cortisol (and other hormones) that interact with sleep.
SummaryIn other words, a breakup is arguably the highest risk factor for developing insomnia symptoms, although it may vary among different demographics.
Other Causes of Sleep Trouble After a Breakup
The stress and mental anguish from a broken heart is the main cause of insomnia, but it can also cause other behavior that makes sleep issues even worse.
It’s fairly common for people after a breakup to:
- Feel depressed - Depressive symptoms are highly linked to insomnia.
- Eat poorly - Whether it’s not eating enough, or eating unhealthy food, which can both affect sleep quality.
- Drink alcohol - Many people turn to alcohol to cope with breakups, but alcohol usually leads to lower quality sleep.
- Not exercise - It’s easy for exercising habits to be stopped after a breakup. That’s a shame since moderate exercise is good for sleep.
- Not drink enough water - There’s a clear link between dehydration and insomnia.
SummaryThe stress of a breakup alone can be enough to cause sleep problems. It can also cause people to do other things that only make insomnia symptoms worse.
How Can Insomnia After a Breakup Be Treated?
Most acute insomnia from a breakup will subside on its own eventually. However, it can develop into chronic insomnia in some cases, which will require assessment and treatment from a doctor. Any physical pain in the chest area is also reason enough to seek medical help.
In general, medication is a last resort if you're having trouble sleeping. It’s not always effective, and comes with side effects that are often just as bad.
For a typical breakup, there are 2 main things that most people can do to improve sleep. Results will not always show immediately.
To Start With, Establish a Healthy Routine
We just looked at some common behaviors that worsen sleep.
Even if you have to force yourself to do them, it’s important to establish a routine to get you through the day that will maintain your physical health:
- Eat well, and eat enough
- Drink plenty of water
- Exercise a bit, even if it’s just a short walk
- Don’t turn to alcohol
- Do some fun things (maybe that you couldn’t do in your relationship)
- Set a sleep schedule
Doing those things will at least make you feel physically okay and allow you to at least know you can get by after your relationship ended.
Confront the Sources of Your Stress
Ultimately, sleep issues after a breakup will go away once the underlying stress, anxiety, and mental pain have been dealt with.
I realize that’s easier said than done.
A breakup often brings up several tough things to confront (e.g. personal flaws, worries about if you did something wrong, desperation over trying to reconcile, etc.).
It’s uncomfortable to confront these things, and they can be overwhelming, but that’s what’s needed to start healing.
There are a few ways you can start to do this if you are stuck:
- Meditation - Will help you to clear your mind, and the things that are causing you the most stress will rise to the front for you to examine (and hopefully overcome).
- Journaling - Keeping a journal is a good way to vent and think through problems that you are facing. It can also help you track your progress, which can be nice to look back at over time.
- Therapy - If possible, getting therapy can accelerate your healing and help with any intrusive thoughts interfering with falling asleep. A professional therapist can help you identify the things causing you the most stress and help you work through them.
- Talking with friends - Friends can give you some support while talking through uncomfortable topics, and can also give you a more objective perspective.
Even if all the underlying issues that come from a breakup aren’t solved, even making some progress is often enough to return sleep quality to an acceptable level.
Focus On Improving Your Other Life Circumstances
Another approach is to focus on other parts of your life besides relationships, which can serve as a bit of a distraction, but also a chance to appreciate the other good things you have.
When you’re feeling like there’s nothing to be happy about, it can help to work on other things you care about that can give you reason to be hopeful about the future.
This typically includes things like:
- Physical health
I’m certainly not an expert in this area, but there are plenty of books on things to try after a breakup that you can seek out if needed.
Is Sleep Medication a Good Option After a Breakup?
In times of pain, it’s natural to look towards medication like sleeping pills.
However, when it comes to sleep, most sleep medication has potentially concerning side effects.
That’s why you’ll need a prescription to get access to any. You can certainly see a doctor to see if medication is appropriate and they will be able to assess your circumstances.
Alternatively, you may be tempted to turn to over-the-counter “sleep medication” like cold medicine to get back to proper sleep. Medicines like Tylenol PM can improve insomnia in the short term due to the antihistamines it contains, it’s a short-lived effect and can have unwanted side effects.
The better option is to turn to natural sleeping aids if you really want to pursue some avenue of medication.
I’ve done a thorough evidence-based sleeping aid review if you’re interested in which natural remedies actually work or not. In general, the best options are:
- Melatonin - By far the most effective option for most people to make it easier to fall asleep, and relatively safe if you follow proper dosage instructions.
- L-theanine - Leads to better sleep for many people with a good amount of evidence behind it, and is the reason why tea can improve sleep despite containing caffeine. You can also buy this in capsule form.
- Magnesium - If you haven’t been eating well, you may have a magnesium deficiency, which research shows may cause sleep issues. A magnesium supplement may remedy that and lead to better quality sleep.
There is some evidence for alternatives like essential oils improving sleep (e.g. lemon balm leaf oil extract), but it’s relatively weak. The plus side is that they typically won’t have negative side effects and can be helpful if you find them relaxing.
SummarySleep medication is generally not the cure-all that most people imagine. A doctor can prescribe sleep medication if needed, or OTC options like melatonin can help ease insomnia symptoms after a breakup or other stressful situation.
When Will Sleep After a Breakup Improve?
As mentioned before, most post-breakup insomnia symptoms resolve themselves after a few days or weeks as stress levels get closer to “normal.” Unfortunately there are no magical sleep hacks that will instantly fix this problem.
In addition, there are cases where trouble falling asleep can lead to sleep anxiety, which can cause chronic insomnia that may require professional help.
Using the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index (PSQI) can give you a reference into how “bad” your sleep quality is. You can use our PSQI calculator to see if your symptoms put you at risk of experiencing insomnia long-term.
If so, you should consider seeing a doctor if possible.
It might feel embarrassing to go because you feel broken hearted, but in reality you are going because of serious sleep problems and potentially mental health issues (i.e. depression), which are both concerning health issues.
Medical Disclaimer: The information on SnoozeUniversity.com is not intended to be a substitute for physician or other qualified care. We simply aim to inform people struggling with sleep issues about the nature of their condition and/or prescribed treatment.