A mindful approach to insomnia and improved sleep
One of the many benefits of practising mindfulness is improved length and quality of sleep. Unlike other methods, such as medication or ‘counting sheep’, mindfulness asks us to acknowledge and accept our sleeping problems instead of trying to avoid them or fix them. Mindfulness gives us an alternative ‘truth’, where instead of striving to where we want to be, we focus our attention on where we actually are; surrendering to it with awareness and self-kindness.
The word ‘surrender’ might seem negative, but imagine being in quicksand when our natural instinct is to struggle against the pull – but then we notice that the more we struggle, the faster we sink. Do we fight more or surrender? It seems obvious, but how many of us spend each night fighting to escape our sleeplessness, when really all we need to do is breathe, relax and let go of our struggle to fight it.
We have all endured those times when we’ve laid in bed worrying about an issue, struggling with our racing thoughts – our head hits the pillow and our brains don’t stop – and this can prevent us from sleeping. We then become frustrated because we can’t sleep, our body tenses up, breathing and heart rate can increase and then falling asleep becomes even more difficult! The following day’s tiredness leaves us feeling low, reduces our productivity and can even damage our health.
To be able to sleep, we need to be able to relax and let go of the day’s stresses. We can’t make ourselves sleep – we can only enable sleep to occur. ‘Trying’ to sleep only makes it more difficult and when this becomes a pattern, it results in insomnia. Insomnia is the most common sleep disorder and is often treated with medication, but this often has poor results and unacceptable side-effects. Many of us now prefer a non-medication based approach and practising mindfulness relaxation has been proven to be effective in helping us fall asleep.
Mindfulness helps us sleep and sleep makes us mindful
We can’t control all the thoughts and feelings that our minds produce, but we can take control of the way we experience them. When we have difficult thoughts, do we react by becoming stressed or do we respond with acceptance and an awareness that these are just thoughts and step back from them and let them go?
Practising mindfulness allows us to be more clearly aware of our thoughts and emotions and is paramount in being able to turn a reaction into a response.
Whatever the reason for our insomnia, giving attention to it in a kind, accepting way will help our mind and body to relax. Practising self-compassion is vital – we would not want to get frustrated or angry with a baby who can’t sleep. Imagine complaining to the baby in the way we do to ourselves when we can’t sleep (the negative words, tone and volume) – all it would cause would be more crying and still no sleep! Therefore, we should show kindness to ourselves if we want to become calm and relaxed and more receptive for sleep when it does happen.
Evidence that Mindfulness exercise can help reduce insomnia
A recent study – where half the participants took part in a mindfulness awareness programme and the other half completed a sleep education class – showed that mindfulness meditation can help improve sleep patterns. It was found that the mindfulness group had less insomnia, fatigue and depression at the end of the study. In research published in 2010 by the UK Mental Health Foundation it was found that one of the benefits of practising mindfulness was longer and better quality sleep, with few sleep disturbances and a more recent eight week trial involving people with chronic insomnia, found that those participating in the mindfulness programmes saw an increased improvement in their sleep patterns than those in the self-monitoring regime.
In conclusion it would appear that mindful meditation is a viable treatment option for chronic insomnia; can be as effective as medication; and should be tried before resorting to drug treatments, which can have serious long-term implications.
‘The best way to see what tomorrow brings is to sleep through the night’
Producing the ‘relaxation response’
We know that mindfulness meditation can induce the relaxation response, (our body’s direct opposite to the stress ‘fight or flight’ response, which can help ease many stress-related issues, that for many of us, can cause the sleep problems. If we can practise mindfulness for 20 minutes daily, we will create a pattern to help us easily find a sense of relaxation when needed and so be able to induce the relaxation response at night when we are unable to sleep. This can be so potent, that our daytime practise should be whilst sitting up or moving (as in yoga etc), otherwise we could find ourselves having an unscheduled nap!
Practising mindfulness breathing will produce the relaxation response:
- Firstly, choose a calming focus – our breath is a good choice, a sound (Ohm), a positive word (relax or peace) or a phrase (‘breathing in calm – breathing out tension’). If we choose a sound, we should repeat it aloud or silently as we inhale and exhale. As we are being aware of our breath we should just allow ourself to sink into the bed with each breath.
- Secondly, we need to let go and relax – we should not be concerned with how well we are doing and when we notice our mind has wandered, we should just take a deep breath and silently say ‘thinking’ and gently return our attention to our chosen focus.
Practising this mindful exercise will facilitate sleep and combined with our mindfulness meditation during the day, which will help focus our mind and reduce stress, we should soon be in the land of nod!
4 steps for a ‘good night’s sleep’
- Dim lights an hour before bedtime: start to unwind our mind and body by dimming lights and avoid looking at our computer, phone and TV etc, as the light will keep us awake and alert. We can maybe take a bath or read by a gentle light. Cut out stimulants such as coffee, tobacco and alcohol. Mindful Owls: Adult colouring book for relaxation
- Begin a mindfulness exercise ten minutes before bedtime: sit in a comfortable chair, imagining the outline of our body. Be aware of the pressure on the chair and mindful of where there’s more or less pressure. Start at our head – is it touching the back of the chair and how heavy does it feel? Slowly move down to our right ear, then shoulder, arm, leg and foot and then back up the other side. We should take about five minutes for this exercise.
- If our mind wanders, just notice and gently return to the breathing: we should not judge ourself, as it is normal for our mind to wander, our talent rests in bringing it back on track.
- We can now get into bed and focus on our breath: use the mindfulness breathing exercise. If we find ourselves still unable to fall asleep, we should return to the chair, repeat the exercise and not go back to bed until we’re sleepy. But don’t fall asleep in the chair!
7 Mindfulness hints for sleep
These are a few hints to remember to help us fall asleep or get back to sleep:
Every night is a new night – be open and try something different.
Sleep cannot be forced – allow sleep to unfold. Trying to sleep longer or better is detrimental.
Letting go of our sleep needs – worrying about the consequences of sleeplessness does not help the natural process of allowing sleep to come.
Try not to judge our sleeplessness – we easily judge our being awake as negative, but this, in itself, can interfere with our ability to sleep. Instead, we can use this as a helpful subject for our meditation.
Accept our sleeplessness as our first step in how to respond – if we can accept that we aren’t sleepy and are not likely to be soon, we should get out of bed. Many of us who have sleep problems will still remain in bed, but merely spending long periods in bed not sleeping can condition us into the habit of being awake in bed.
Trust our sleep system – trust that our mind and body can self regulate for sleep loss. Accepting that short consolidated sleep can feel better than a longer fragmented one will help us trust our sleep system.
Be patient! – it is not likely that both the quality and quantity of our sleep will be ideal immediately.
Merely practising mindfulness is far more restorative than just tossing and turning, so even if we just practised being ‘present’ all night and didn’t fall asleep, it would still be better for us. And the benefit of time spent in mindful meditation means we are training our mind in mindfulness, which is great for so many other parts of our life – not least of which is growing a stronger and healthier brain.
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