“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.”
~ Friedrich Nietzche
A common question about grief that we often hear asked is: Does grief make you tired?
The simple answer is, yes, it’s perfectly normal to feel exhausted after experiencing significant loss. Grief and loss can cause mind-body mayhem, which comes as a surprise to those who thought grief would be a purely emotional experience (read about physical grief symptoms here).
So if you found us after Googling something like, “why is grief so exhausting?” you’re not alone. Because many people experience unanticipated physical grief responses and then, naturally, search online to make sure they’re not a sign that something is wrong.
For the purposes of this article, we’re going to address reasons why grief might be making you tired. You’ll notice that we don’t offer many suggestions for dealing with fatigue. That isn’t because options for coping don’t exist. It’s merely because discussing these outlets is beyond the scope of this article. Instead, the purpose of this article is to normalize the experience of being tired in grief and provide some rationale as to why you might feel this way.
Finally, it’s important for us to add the disclaimer that we aren’t doctors. We do recommend you speak to your physician if you’re experiencing fatigue that you find concerning. Especially if it persists for a long period of time, and despite efforts to rest, etc.
What kind of tired are you?
The first thing to consider is that there is more than one way to feel tired. For example, there’s physical exhaustion, which might result from being on your feet all day, intense exercise, or a sheer lack of sleep. Next, there’s being emotionally and/or mentally exhausted where your body might have what it needs to function, but your brain just feels weary or overloaded. Finally, there’s a general sense of fatigue that can be caused by a wide range of lifestyle, physical, or mental health factors and feels like a chronic lack of motivation or energy.
Knowing there’s more than one kind of tired can help normalize the many reasons you might feel exhausted in grief. Also, if you can step back and notice the type of tired you’re feeling, it might help you identify ways to cope. For example, being physically tired might require you to give your body a rest, while being emotionally exhausted might mean finding ways to calm your mind.
Why does grief make you tired?: 10 Possible Explanations
You’re experiencing insomnia:
We should get insomnia out of the way because it’s a problem many people struggle with (approximately 30%-40% of adults in the US report insomnia symptoms in a given year) and can obviously wreak havoc on a person’s ability to sleep and feel rested. There are also many risk factors for experiencing insomnia, some of which could be linked to loss-related stress and changes.
Though people often think insomnia means having difficultly falling asleep, there are actually three different types of insomnia (1) difficulty falling asleep (2) difficulty remaining asleep and (3) persistent early-morning awakening. To read more about insomnia, try the Sleep Foundation’s website.
You’re sleeping too much:
When you’re grieving, the thought of getting out of bed can seem overwhelming. Your bed is safe and warm, and the world that’s waiting for you seems filled with pain, sorrow, and other unpleasant things. However, as counterintuitive as it may seem, sometimes getting more sleep than you need can make you feel less energetic. What’s up with that?
According to Harvard Health Publishing, “Research bears out the connection between too much sleep and too little energy. It appears that any significant deviation from normal sleep patterns can upset the body’s rhythms and increase daytime fatigue.”
Changes in routine:
If you’ve ever researched good sleep habits, you’ve likely noticed that establishing a routine is one of the top recommendations for sleeping well. So, it stands to reason that not having a routine, or changes in habit, can have the opposite impact. And indeed, changes in routine can throw off your biological clock and circadian rhythms.
Life can be chaotic in the immediate aftermath of loss, and changes related to the loss can completely alter your general day-to-day routine. For example, changes like no longer having a job to report to or suddenly working from home, staying up too late, or new childcare responsibilities that get you out of bed early.
Your mind is on overdrive:
One reason why grief makes you tired is because it’s just plain overwhelming. Dealing with emotional, complex, and stressful things may leave you emotionally exhausted. Period. Full stop. On one end of the spectrum, the absence of thoughts and emotions, i.e., feeling numb or grief fog, can make you feel exhausted. But, conversely, racing, cyclical, or intrusive thoughts can leave you wishing you could get a break from yourself.
Not only might these thoughts wear you out during the day, but they also keep you up at night. It seems like all the world is slumbering while you lay awake, staring into the darkness, trying not to follow your most anxious and upsetting thoughts down the rabbit hole. It can be a very lonely feeling.
Even those who don’t typically tend to lay awake with thoughts might find themselves struggling to quiet their mind. Perhaps you tend to stay so busy during the day that nighttime is the first time there’s enough silence for your grief to speak. Maybe your loss has created a lot of new stress for you to manage. Or perhaps you’re struggling with thoughts about your own existential existence.
Frequent exposure to reminders of the loss are making you emotionally exhausted:
Early on in your grief, it may seem like new and painful reminders are everywhere. Learning how to handle grief triggers takes practice and patience. And worrying what fright might be waiting for you around the next corner can leave you in a constant state of fear (i.e., hypervigilance).
Speaking of hypervigilance, it can really wear you out. Hypervigilance is when a person remains in a state of increased alertness, ready to fight or run from any threat. This is a helpful response when danger is truly near, but when it exists in the absence of any real threat to your safety, it can disrupt your daily functioning. Someone who’s experienced a traumatic loss may be particularly vulnerable to experiencing hypervigilance. However, it can impact anyone, especially if they perceive elements of their grief as threatening.
Hypervigilance is another experience that can deplete you during the day and keep you up at night. Someone who doesn’t feel safe in their own bed and who’s sensitive to every sound will undoubtedly struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep. If you’re experiencing hypervigilance for weeks after your loss, or longer than you’re comfortable with, we recommend consulting with a licensed mental health professional.
Bad dreams can impact sleep for two main reasons. First, bad dreams may wake you up and, once up, there’s no guarantee you can quickly get back to sleep. Second, someone who regularly experiences nightmares may have anxiety about falling asleep in the first place.
Sometimes fatigue is a symptom of an underlying psychological disorder like depression or anxiety. Of course, some physical disorders can also cause fatigue. But we specifically mention psychological disorders because loss and grief, though not disorders themselves, can contribute to developing or exacerbating mental health conditions like anxiety or depression. If you’re worried you might be experiencing a psychological disorder or struggling to cope with a preexisting condition, we recommend speaking to a licensed mental health professional.
You’re choosing harmful coping over constructive coping:
When you are really stressed, your bandwidth for choosing healthy coping and making healthy lifestyle choices is limited. Good diet, regular exercise, drinking plenty of water and less caffeine and alcohol are all things that help boost energy. But when you’re grieving, they can also feel incredibly aspirational.
Grieving people may not feel they have the time or mindset to keep up with healthy habits. While simultaneously being more at risk of choosing harmful coping like isolation and substance use (1) because it’s easier and (2) because it helps numb the pain. Unfortunately, many things that fall under the “quick, easy, and numbing” category of coping can also compound feelings of fatigue.
We’ve written about stress in grief in the past, and suffice it to say, it’s a big topic. Stress puts an enormous tax on the body, and, unfortunately, there is a better than good chance that your loss has created more stress in your life. If you’re facing chronic stress that can’t necessarily be overcome (like grief), your mental, emotional, and physical resources may quickly become depleted.
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.