There really is nothing more healing than a good nights sleep. Nourishing rest is absolutely essential for our health and wellbeing. While we are sleeping, our bodies are busy carrying out vital work; recovering from physical and mental stresses of the day, restoring cells and recharging our batteries.
However, up to a third of adults suffer from insomnia or other sleep disorders and are not getting the good nights sleep they need for optimal mental and physical wellbeing. Sleep deprivation can cause changes to mood, concentration, focus, appetite and affect all areas of our lives.
Mindfulness can be very effective in helping improve sleep quality and alleviate sleep disorder related symptoms. Studies show mindfulness practice in the long term may be comparable to the effects of sleep medication or other treatments; plus it is low-risk, affordable and is likely to have positive effects on other areas of your life too!
What is keeping us awake?
Often when we can’t sleep, it is because we get trapped in a vicious cycle of spiralling thoughts. Our thoughts can make us feel anxious, agitated and worried, which causes our body to respond by tensing or feeling restless. The important part to remember is that it is not the thought alone which keeps us awake but our engagement with our thoughts which allows them to continue to spiral and intensify.
In order to enter into a restful state, we need to break the vicious cycle of ‘feeding’ our thoughts by engaging with them. Mindfulness can help as a circuit breaker at three points in the spiral.
A common misconception is that mindfulness should be practiced at bedtime to help with sleep, however this can actually be detrimental!
If we practice at a stressful time when we feel under pressure (like bedtime for those who struggle to sleep) we are likely to feel frustration and impatience, which will feed our spiral further. The mind is like a muscle so what we practice grows stronger. We really don't want to practice at an already stressful time if it is going to cause us to grow more frustrated and stressed.
It is best to put aside a time to practice mindfulness earlier in the day when you are feeling relaxed; see this like training, just as if you were going to the gym. This can be done in conjunction with an evening relaxation practice for the most benefit.
The three ways mindfulness can break the vicious cycle of insomnia
1. Not engaging with thoughts and feelings
In mindfulness meditation, we focus our attention on the present moment in a kind and non-judgemental way. We practice becoming the observer of our thoughts and watch them floating by like clouds in the sky. We resist reacting to and engaging with our thoughts by using the breath as our object of attention in the present moment. When our mind drifts of into thought (which of course it will do), we kindly lead it back to the breath again and again.
You can find 5 and 10 minute guided practices here to get you started.
The practice we put in earlier in the day will bear fruits at bedtime. Our training will allow us to let thoughts float on by without engaging with them, which prevents them from spiralling into a vicious cycle.
2. Practicing self-compassion and kindness
The way we talk to ourselves is especially important, and this includes when we are trying to sleep. It’s easy to get annoyed and blame ourselves for not being able to sleep and think “for goodness sake!” “why am I like this?!”. If we talk to ourselves with frustration, anger or self-loathing, we will just feel more frustration, more anger and more self-loathing. These emotions are not conducive to a restful sleep and will likely see our body going into a stress response with muscles tensing and our heartbeat increasing. When we practice mindfulness, we do so with an attitude of kindness, compassion and non-judgement and so it's important to change the way we speak to ourselves with these values in mind. Practicing this softer, kinder self-talk during meditation will plant seeds for the way you talk to yourself at bedtime. When you remember to be kind to yourself at bedtime, instead of blaming yourself, your mind will no longer be fed with frustration and your body is more likely to relax and move towards a more restful state.
The above two interventions are training the mind and planting the seeds for a more mindful bed time. You might also find it useful to practice guided meditation or relaxation techniques at bedtime in conjunction with a daily practice earlier in the day. This will help to relax the body and calm the mind, ready for sleep. A very simple relaxation technique is diaphragmatic breathing: Draw your breath right down into your belly so it inflates like a balloon place your awareness here to feel the sensations of your belly inflating and deflating. You can also try counting the length of your breath and lengthening the exhale so it is longer than the inhale. You can also try a guided body scan.
All three together is your best chance for a restful sleep
It has been shown that practicing mindfulness for 20 minutes a day for 6 weeks can decrease insomnia, fatigue, and depression. The important thing to remember is to practice in the daytime, away from bedtime, but do use a bedtime relaxation practice in conjunction with this if needed.
If after your bed time relaxation you find thoughts arise again or you wake in the night to a thinking mind, this is where your earlier training will come in. As your practice develops you will find it easier not to engage with your thoughts, and to speak to yourself with kindness, and this will stop you from feeding your thoughts and getting back into the vicious spiral which causes insomnia.
Mindfulness should be used alongside good sleep hygiene; for example limiting screen time in the evenings, making sure your environment is restful and limiting caffeine and alcohol intake. There are also other holistic therapies such as aromatherapy and sound therapy which can be very helpful used alongside mindfulness.
Wishing you a restful, restoring and rejuvenating nights sleep 😊