How does mindfulness help overcome insomnia?
Everyone experiences a few nights of poor sleep on occasion, but when sleep is disrupted for weeks or months on end, insomnia can become, well... a nightmare.
So let’s look at insomnia and how it develops.
Chronic insomnia is disturbed sleep at least three days a week for more than three months. It affects around 7-13% of the population and is caused by a combination of factors. For a start, some people are more prone to develop insomnia due to various background factors that include genetics, age, gender and health status. Some people are naturally good sleepers, and others can struggle with sleep difficulties right throughout their lives. Older adults, females, and people who tend to worry or feel anxious are more at risk of developing insomnia. Being overweight, having a medical problem like chronic pain or cardiovascular disease, or simply drinking too much coffee can also increase the likelihood of developing insomnia.
It is important to note that these factors on their own may not cause insomnia, however if you are predisposed to insomnia then face a stressful or major life event (changing jobs, becoming unwell, having a child), the combination of factors can lead to a sleep problem. Even good sleepers can experience insomnia in certain situations. Events that are new, exciting or challenging can activate the body’s adrenaline system, increasing heart rate, breathing rate and body temperature among other things, which can interfere with sleep.
Once a sleep problem begins, it is not uncommon to start worrying about how long the problem will last. Unfortunately, worrying about sleep and thinking about the consequences of not sleeping, like feeling fatigued all day, is one of the most common reasons why insomnia persists. It’s a vicious cycle. The more you worry about not sleeping and try to get to sleep, the worse insomnia becomes. The stress and anxiety about not sleeping becomes the very thing that that keeps you awake!
So what is mindfulness and how does it help with sleep?
Mindfulness is an awareness that comes from paying attention to the present moment, with an open mind and non-judging attitude. It is letting go of thinking about past or future situations, to be present in the here and now, facing life as it is. In his pioneering work bringing mindfulness to Western medicine, Jon Kabat Zinn observed that most people with sleep disturbance report a marked improvement in sleep after just a few weeks of practicing daily mindfulness meditation. Similar results have been found in a number of other studies.
Mindfulness improves sleep in a number of ways. Firstly, when practiced at night, it assists in breaking the vicious cycle of insomnia by guiding attention away from unhelpful thinking and worrying about not sleeping, to focus on the natural flow of the breath. The aim is not to induce sleep, but to cultivate patience and trust that sleep will come in its own time. Secondly, practicing meditation while lying in bed can be very relaxing and restful, restoring energy to the body and mind for the following day.
A third benefit of mindfulness practice is that it reduces stress and anxiety in daily life. Regular practice helps to relax the mind and body, and teaches us how to regulate and calm our emotions so we are less reactive when faced with challenging situations. These skills can increase our capacity to deal with the problems we face in our lives.
And finally, with greater awareness of our thoughts, feelings, and body sensations, we can respond better to our body’s need for rest, a healthy diet, and exercise, to maintain a healthy and balanced lifestyle. It follows that when our lives are in balance, stress is low, and our health is optimal, we enjoy the best quality sleep.
Below you will find a mindfulness meditation that may be of use.
A Mindful Way offers a six-week online course for managing insomnia, incorporating evidenced based treatment approaches of cognitive behavioural therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) and mindfulness training. Click here for more information about the course.
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Looking for more information?
You can find more information about insomnia here. And you can learn more about the influence of thinking on sleep in the related articles When the mind won’t stop thinking, just sit back and watch and Are you stuck with insomnia, chronic fatigue or anxiety?