How To Sleep When Horrific News Becomes The Norm

Seven tips to help you practice self-care amid chaos.

17/07/2016 1:46 AM IST | Updated 18/07/2016 11:17 PM IST
Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
A man reacts near the scene where a truck ran into a crowd at high speed killing scores and injuring more who were celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday, in Nice, France on Thursday.

Last night more than 260 civilians were killed in violent clashes with military forces in Istanbul.

The night before, at least 84 people lost their lives when a truck deliberately zigzagged through crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day in Nice, France.

Two weeks ago Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were shot and killed by police and five police officers were gunned down by a sniper. The previous month, 49 people were killed by a shooter at an iconic gay nightclub in Orlando.

And scores of other shootingsbombings and tragedies have happened in the days and hours in between.

We heard the stories. We saw the pictures. We watched terror happen on video.

Orlando Police officers direct family members away from the shooting at the Pulse Orlando nightclub on June 12.

Mothersfatherssonsdaughtersloverscolleaguesfriends and the man from down the street who “would have gave you the shirt off his back” lost their lives.

Eric Miller/Reuters
Diamond Reynolds, girlfriend of Philando Castile, who was fatally shot by police on July 6, recounts the incidents at a Black Lives Matter demonstration in front of the governor’s mansion in St. Paul, Minnesota on July 7.

For victims’ loved ones, the grief is immeasurable. For African-Americans, the pain of watching police brutality against black people comes with a toll of its own. For people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, the hurt of an attack against their own community is agonizing.

People intimately affected by these tragedies experience emotions that others of us cannot fathom. 

But even for those without a personal connection to these terrible events, sadness and pain are still a reality.

We feel pain even if we’re not involved

If you see, hear or even read about something traumatic ― even if you’re not directly involved ― you can still have an emotional response, Robert Hawkins, an associate professor at the Silver School of Social Work at New York University, told The Huffington Post.

“This is trauma that doesn’t necessarily happen to you or you didn’t necessarily experience, but you become affected by it,” he said. 

It can be worse if you identify with those affected, explained David Kaplan, chief professional officer at the American Counseling Association.

“If you relate to the person who was attacked in any way, you’re going to grieve because it’s also part of you,” Kaplan told HuffPost previously. 

But that grief, while normal and expected, can lead to stress and sleeplessness. 

“With the frequency of shootings and terror attacks there is a sense of anxiety that’s building in people,” Anita Gadhia-Smith, a psychologist in Washington, D.C., told The New York Times ― “a sense of vulnerability and powerlessness.”

Traumatic life events are among the biggest causes of anxiety and depression, research suggests. But experts say taking steps to care for yourself ― including taking care of your sleep ― is what helps you cope best with that stress.

Stress causes chemical changes in our bodies

Not sleeping is the body’s natural response after hearing about and watching disturbing events, according to sleep psychologist Jason Ong of Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

When the body releases stress hormones, the emotion-processing areas of the brain stay on, suppressing some of its sleep-promoting systems, he said. Even though your body knows you’re tired, your brain knows something is wrong and you need to deal with it.

The bottom line: research shows that when we’re stressed, the chemical and biological changes in our bodies can interfere with our sleep. 

Pascal Rossignol / Reuters
Individuals react near the location where a truck ran into a crowd of people celebrating the Bastille Day national holiday, which took place on July 14.

That stress and sleeplessness is important to address early, experts say, before it leads to long-term cycles of mental health problems and chronic insomnias (which can grow from cycles of short-term insomnias).

“Anxiety and insomnia can feed each other and become a cycle,” the National Sleep Foundation says.

Here are seven self-care tips that can help you deal with worries and sleep better:

1. Talk about what’s bothering you

A big part of dealing with a tragedy is expressing your emotions, said Steve Orma, a clinical psychologist and author of Stop Worrying and Go to Sleep: How to Put Insomnia to Bed for Good. “If you’re sad, allow yourself to cry. If you’re anxious and afraid, say ‘I’m anxious and afraid,’” he previously told HuffPost.  

If you’re sad, allow yourself to cry. If you’re anxious and afraid, say ‘I’m anxious and afraid.’ Steve Orma, clinical psychologist

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recommends that you talk to family and friends about how you’re feeling.

2. Do things that help you relax

Relaxation and meditation techniques help ease stress and can be especially helpful before bed, said Phyllis Zee, director of the Sleep Disorders Center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

3. Don’t change your sleep routines

Losing sleep at night might make that snooze button more tempting. But picking up poor sleep habits just makes it harder for you to fall asleep at night, Orma said.

If you’re not a regular nap-taker, don’t start. Avoid sleeping in later than usual. And don’t suddenly start taking sleep medications because you may grow dependent on them, he said.

4. Turn off the news at night

Leave a news-free buffer of at least 30 to 45 minutes before you try to sleep to allow yourself to relax, Ong said. Limiting your exposure to media coverage of violence will help you relax and sleep better.

5. Practice good sleep hygiene 

It might sound obvious, but it’s worth noting that the times that you’re more likely to have trouble sleeping are when it’s most important to do the things that are good for sleep, Zee said. Exercise during the day, but not too close to bedtime. Get some sun during the day, but avoid bright lighter later at night (which can make it harder for you to fall asleep and actually make you sleep worse).

6. Give yourself a break

You need to tell yourself it’s ok to have a few nights of poor sleep, Orma said. The more you beat yourself up for not sleeping well and the more upset you get about it, the more anxious you can become about not sleeping and fuel the sleepless cycle. 

Talk to yourself like you were talking to your best friend or a child... in a very nurturing, supportive or positive way. Steve Orma, clinical psychologist

“Talk to yourself like you were talking to your best friend or a child. You would talk in a very nurturing, supportive or positive way,” Orma told HuffPost previously. “You wouldn’t freak them out.”

7. Get the help you need

If coping on your own or with your family members is not enough, talk to a psychologist or licensed medical health professional, recommends the American Psychological Association.

While there is no one timeline that fits everyone for how long it should take for a trauma to subside, the APA says you might benefit from seeking professional help if you feel overwhelmed by sadness or helplessness, if the problem doesn’t seem to be getting better after talking with family and friends or if you find it difficult to maintain your everyday routine. 

Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at

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