Getting enough high-quality sleep is hugely beneficial to people who are in recovery from substance use disorder. When we are sleeping, our brain can build new pathways, process information we learned while awake, create new memories, and clear out unneeded information, all of which is helpful to the recovery process. 

Unfortunately, insomnia is an issue that is far more common among people who have battled addiction, both while a person is experiencing withdrawal and sometimes even in the weeks, months, and years after they have stopped using. It is estimated that people with a history of addiction are up to five times more likely than the general population to struggle with sleep disruptions.

Common Sleep Issues

The difficulties that a person can experience with sleep after they have stopped using can include a wide range of problems:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Nightmares and strange dreams (most common during withdrawal from certain substances)
  • Waking up during the night
  • Poor quality of sleep
  • Less sleep time
  • Daytime fatigue

While it isn’t really possible to “make up” lost sleep in the nights that follow a night of disrupted sleep, sleep debt is a real phenomenon. It is estimated to take around four days to recover from a single hour of lost sleep and up to nine days to fully eliminate sleep debt.

What’s Going on Inside Your Head?

The substances that a person uses in active addiction alter their brain chemistry and their ability to move through the stages of sleep, particularly REM and NREM sleep. It can take time for the brain to adjust back to more healthy sleep patterns after a person enters recovery. 

Beyond issues that are specific to withdrawal and recovery, people who have fought addictions can also experience all of the issues that can cause sleep disturbances for anyone else, including:

Chicken and the Egg

Sleep issues can be a cyclical problem for people who have fought addiction. Substance misuse can increase sleep disruptions, and people with sleep disruptions frequently self-medicate with alcohol and other drugs to make it easier to sleep, even though substance use actually has the opposite effect. Not getting enough good sleep can also increase the risk of relapse because it is correlated with higher levels of cravings. Doctors are advised to proceed with caution when considering sleep medications for a person in recovery because the medications can sometimes be abused. So, what is a person in recovery to do?

Good Sleep Habits

Though it may take some time, people in recovery can focus on building good sleep habits to address insomnia, such as:

  • Talking to your doctor or pharmacist about new medications and avoiding drugs that are known to contribute to sleep issues:
    • Alcohol, marijuana and many illegal drugs
    • Some blood pressure medications
    • Certain antidepressants
    • Pseudoephedrine
    • Nicotine
    • Caffeine
    • Some medications that are given for colds, allergies, and asthma
  • Getting up at the same time every day, even on holidays and weekends
  • Making sure to get some sunshine in the mornings to help your brain release the chemicals that regulate your sleep cycle 
  • Exercising regularly, but not too close to bedtime
  • Keeping your food intake light in the evening
  • Avoiding naps or keeping them short and early in the day
  • Having a wind-down routine that helps your brain build a connection between your evening activities and going to sleep. This can include activities like taking a bath, light reading, and meditation activities. Biofeedback and muscle relaxation techniques may be helpful to incorporate into meditation activities.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may also be beneficial for some people who struggle with insomnia in recovery.

Your Sleep Space

Your sleep environment is particularly important. You will want to ensure that the room where you sleep is:

  • Dark
  • Well ventilated
  • Cool, but not cold
  • Furnished with a comfortable bed
  • Quiet – This may require removing pets from your room at night if they tend to wake you or wearing earplugs if you aren’t able to control the noise level.
  • Reserved for only sleep and intimacy. Though you might enjoy reading, scrolling social media, or watching TV in bed, these practices can cause the brain to associate your bed with wakeful activities instead of sleep. 

If you are struggling with sleep disruptions in recovery, Safe Harbor Recovery Center in Portsmouth, VA, has a team of professionals who can help you to make a plan to manage your sleep better and avoid relapse.