Mindfulness for sleep
Practicing mindfulness not only helps you to live a happier and healthier life, it has a wonderful benefit for sleep, too. One study showed that when a group of people undertook a six-week mindfulness course, 87% of them reported better sleep. Many other studies have also demonstrated that practicing mindfulness has a positive effect on sleep. You can read a summary of this research here, and to learn more about mindfulness read our article ‘What is Mindfulness?’
Mindfulness can improve sleep in several ways:
Mindfulness reduces overall stress and hyperarousal
Stress and hyperarousal are the feelings of being wound up and tense. Sometimes you might experience this as nervous energy and find it difficult to sit still or relax. Other times, you might feel overwhelmed and tired, and lack motivation to face the demands that lie ahead.
As good sleep requires a relaxed body and calm mind, and even a small degree of stress, anxiety or agitation can disturb it. Stress and hyperarousal are, therefore, the most common causes of poor sleep.
One of the fundamental benefits of regular mindfulness practice is that it reduces stress, tension and hyperarousal. 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, so that stress and tension remains low and under control. These lower stress levels are directly related to better sleep.
Mindfulness can have immediate relaxation effects
Mindfulness meditation is not primarily a relaxation exercise, but it does tend to have a calming effect on the body, even if this is not the intention of the practice. When we stop to sit, or lie down, to focus on the breath, it has the effect of slowing down our heart rate and breathing rate, and helps to release tension in the body. Practicing meditation at night time can assist with unwinding and releasing tension, which is great preparation for sleep.
Mindfulness increases awareness of the signs of sleepiness which informs us of the best time to go to bed.
A common problem for people with insomnia is not knowing their ideal bedtime. Some people stay up too late because they are anxious about sleep and want to avoid facing another night of sleeplessness. Others go to bed too early, hoping to catch up on sleep, without realising that although they are tired, they are not actually sleepy. On a biological level, there are a number of coinciding factors that determine our ideal bed time. The first is that we’ve built up enough ‘sleep debt’ through the day, meaning we’ve been active enough to accumulate fatigue in the muscles and other chemicals in the brain (e.g adenosine) that tell our body that it’s time to sleep. The second factor is that our sleep/wake cycle, determined by our circadian rhythm, is functioning correctly so that we are naturally sleepy at the end of the day. And the third factor is that we are mentally and physically relaxed enough for sleep to occur.
The classic signs that we are biologically ready for sleep include: yawning, heavy eye lids, losing focus and attention, etc. If we are distracted watching TV, or on electronic devices, and not aware of these signs, we will miss the cues to go to bed. Training in mindfulness supports healthy body awareness, and a greater capacity to recognise these signs of sleepiness, so we can go to bed at the ideal time for sleep.
Mindfulness offers us skills to cope with sleeplessness
On those nights when you can’t get to sleep, mindfulness offers skills to cope. Knowing how to direct your attention away from unhelpful thoughts that can arise when you can’t sleep, such as “If I don’t sleep now, I’ll feel awful tomorrow”, can prevent the anxiety and frustration that would otherwise arise. Practicing meditation during this time by focussing on the breath, letting go of thoughts, noticing other sensations available such as the cushioning of the mattress and pillow, etc. can help you to stay calm and relaxed. It is also helpful to maintaining an attitude of patience, acceptance, and non-striving, while trusting that sleep will come eventually, in its own time.
The principles of mindfulness offer a solid foundation for healthy sleep.
There are seven principles of mindfulness, which play a valuable role in supporting healthy sleep. The principles are acceptance, non-judging, trust, beginners mind, patience, non-striving and letting go, which described in more detail here.
Each of the seven principles offers a unique perspective on how to drop the battle with sleep. When we accept and surrender to the fact that we can’t sleep, the stress and struggle subsides, allowing us to stay calm and relaxed. Similarly, non-striving and the letting go of trying to sleep, and having patience and trust that sleep will arrive in its own time, are part of the core mindfulness skills and qualities to overcome insomnia.
It is the great paradox of sleep that as we become more accepting of not sleeping, and the more we let go of trying to sleep, the more relaxed we become, and the better our body’s natural sleep processes can function. Furthermore, resting the body in a calm and relaxed state offers us recuperation and regeneration of energy, and enough restorative value to function surprisingly well the next day.
Each of the mindfulness principles and their role in overcoming insomnia are explained in detail in the online course A Mindful Way to Healthy Sleep.
Mindfulness improves general health and self-care, which helps sleep
With an increased awareness of our physical and psychological state, we are in a better position to look after ourselves during the day to prevent stress or hyperarousal building up. We are more likely to take breaks when we need them, eat healthier meals, exercise and stretch the body according to our needs, take time to relax and unwind, and even practice mindfulness regularly! All of these behaviours help to regulate stress and reduce tension in the body, and has the overall effect of reducing hyperarousal and improving sleep.