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Handling insomnia during drug and alcohol treatment

By Tim Woodley

Of all the challenges faced when proceeding through treatment, insomnia is one of the most relatable. Characterised by a person who has persistent and stubborn difficulty falling or staying asleep, its definition in the modern day is extended to include periods of poor quality, unrestful sleep – despite getting the hours in.

As you might imagine, insomnia is more than a little disruptive. At a time when a person is being challenged to face their drug and alcohol misuse and addiction head-on, insomnia is a regrettably common hurdle that rears its head as life is upheaved in an effort to beat addiction and achieve a sober, substance misuse-free lifestyle.


Insomnia during withdrawal

As we discussed during our recent blog touching on alcohol withdrawal symptoms,  insomnia is common amongst people who are in the withdrawal stage of their recovery for drugs or alcohol – or both.

It’s a very common symptom of withdrawal, and it’s usually seen in individuals who are detoxing from alcohol and drug abuse. As the body, spirit and mind adjust away from their previously established routine of substance misuse, the chemical balance is shifted drastically. This, combined with the habitual routine often formed around substance misuse and addiction, turns the individual’s life on its head.

Serious sleep issues can persist during this phase of detox and recovery for weeks. In some cases, it can be longer - months or even years. The challenge here is obvious: insomnia challenges the individual at a critical time when they must be strong, often leading to an increase in anxiety and tiredness as well as a loss of enthusiasm and the ability to concentrate.

The good news? It goes away. Things get better.

Insomnia is one of several hurdles faced and overcome during treatment. Any programme worth its salt, such as our dayhab offering, will include support and education on insomnia. This helps each person to learn how to cope with its presence as they detox and proceed with their recovery.


How you can reduce and manage insomnia during treatment

We’ll continue now with a short set of tips on how you can manage and work around your insomnia as you proceed with your recovery and detoxing. Let’s take a look.


Be strict about your schedule: The first point is simple, but paramount – you must maintain a rigid sleep schedule. The circadian rhythm of your body – essentially your internal clock – needs a stable pattern of sleep for you to function.

While methods vary, it’s a great idea to wake up at the same time each day and to fall asleep when you feel tired. As you stick to this method, your body will gradually adjust to a stable and narrower pattern of sleep.


Understand sleep hygiene: Beds are, to many, used for much more than sleep. Besides sex, it's common for individuals to be on their laptops or phones or watching TV whilst in bed. Unfortunately, this is a bad habit; using TVs, tablets, smartphones, laptops, or other electronic devices in bed delays your body's internal clock (also known as your circadian rhythm), suppresses the release of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and makes it more difficult to fall asleep.

The Sleep Foundation has some excellent tips on sleep hygiene which include:

  • Limiting daytime naps to 30 minutes. Napping does not make up for inadequate night-time sleep. However, a short nap of 20-30 minutes can help to improve mood, alertness and performance
  • Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine close to bedtime
  • Exercising to promote good quality sleep. As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking or cycling, can drastically improve night-time sleep quality. For the best night’s sleep, most people should avoid strenuous workouts close to bedtime
  • Steering clear of food that can be disruptive right before sleep such as heavy or rich foods, fatty or fried meals, spicy dishes, citrus fruits, and carbonated drinks
  • Ensuring adequate exposure to natural light. Exposure to sunlight during the day, as well as darkness at night, helps to maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle
  • Establishing a regular relaxing bedtime routine. A regular nightly routine helps the body recognise that it is bedtime. This could include taking a warm shower or bath, reading a book, or light stretches. When possible, try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations and activities before attempting to sleep
  • Making sure that the sleep environment is pleasant. Mattress and pillows should be comfortable. Consider using blackout curtains, eye shades, earplugs, "white noise" machines, humidifiers, fans and other devices that can make the bedroom more relaxing

If you’re struggling with insomnia while detoxing from drug and alcohol use and addiction, you’ll help your chances at stable sleep by only ever getting into bed when you’re ready to go to sleep. This boundary will help motivate you in your daily life and will encourage you to avoid depressive episodes where you fall into bed instead of facing the day and its challenges.


Use a reflective diary: Your rehab or Dayhab programme will include a scheduled set of activities and assignments, both in groups and alone.  Much of your day in treatment will be around exploring issues around your drug and alcohol use, looking at trauma, family dynamics and feelings you have about yourself and others. This level of self-reflection often brings up lots of thoughts and feelings that can impact on sleep later as they prey on the mind.

Use a daily diary before you go to bed each night and to get these things out on paper. Below are some suggestions for things you might want to include in your daily dairy:

  • How have I felt today?
  • Have my decisions been healthy?
  • Did I need help today and did I seek it?
  • Did I need to own any negative behaviours or apologise to anyone?
  • Have my needs been met?
  • What have I learnt about myself today?


We’d like to help you

Insomnia is a serious issue faced by millions across the world, and we’ve seen many of our own clients at Help Me Stop struggle with it as they proceed through our Dayhab programme. If you’re considering our Dayhab programme or rehab in general and would like advice at no pressure or obligation, we’d like to provide that.

Get in touch now by calling us on 0208 191 8920 or by using our contact form. We wish you well and hope to hear from you soon.