Divorce can be a very stressful time in our lives. Poor sleep is often a result of this stress. We refer to this form of insomnia as acute adjustment or transient insomnia. However, what happens if the problem persists?
In the July issue of Health Psychology, researchers set out to find the answer. In the study, 138 recently separated people completed a self-report of sleep complaints and resting blood pressure. The subjects were followed for 7 1/2 months. The study showed that sleep complaints predicted significant increases in blood pressure at subsequent follow-up visits. Most interesting was the finding that people who continued to show sleep complaints 10 weeks or more after their separation demonstrated the greatest increase in blood pressure.
As one of the researchers pointed out, sleep problems during the first 10 weeks after a separation did not appear to be associated with persistent increases in blood pressure. However, in those with persistent sleep problems after 10 weeks, chronic elevations in blood pressure were noted.
This is not the first study to point out the relationship between divorce, sleep, and blood pressure. A study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine in 2009 came to a similar conclusion. It was found that divorce-related emotional difficulty played a significant role in elevating blood pressure, particularly in men.
My conclusion is that these investigations demonstrate how important sleep is in dealing with stress. It is during sleep that our sympathetic (fight or flight) system shuts down. It is also during sleep when our cortisol production drops to its lowest point of the day. Add to that the fact that during sleep, especially REM (dream sleep), the processing of emotionally laden information takes place. Therefore, is it any wonder that poor sleep, during something as stressful as a divorce, would have significant negative health consequences?
What are we to learn from these studies? I think the first take home message is that poor and insufficient sleep due to life stressors can have serious physiological consequences such as high blood pressure. The second is not to ignore the effects on one’s sleep that are occurring. Had these individuals been helped with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and educated about the importance of good sleep during a separation or divorce, it seems probable that the development of high blood pressure and all of its unfortunate consequences could be avoided.