July 17, 2020
We all have nights when we can’t fall asleep. You know the ones: you feel tired, you brush your teeth, put on pajamas, set your alarm, and get everything ready for bed. Then you lay down and close your eyes and an hour passes and you’re still awake, churning over thoughts about work, your to do list, or whatever random ideas pop into your head.
These nights might be rare for some of us, but for others they’re so common that a good night’s rest seems like a distant dream. Now with more demands on our time, and with technology helping us spread ourselves as thinly as possible, it can be even harder to find the peace we long for at the end of the day.
Tune in to the next Mindful Daily and learn how mindfulness can help you connect with yourself and find peace from within!
It’s only natural that we look for different tricks and tips to sleep better, and there’s no shortage of advice on how to get a better night’s rest, from wearing eye shades to keeping your phone out of the room. But more than any strategy to help you fall asleep, mindfulness is a way to work with the root of our restless nights: an agitated mind.
It’s Our Agitated Minds Keeping us Awake
Having trouble sleeping doesn’t start the moment when we lay down. In fact, there’s a host of mental habits that we create throughout the day that keep us awake at night. If our minds are constantly agitated throughout the day (our awareness jumping from one thought to the next, caught in to do lists and problems that need to be solved) then we’re creating a habit for our minds to be like that all the time, even when we go to bed.
Many of us walk around stressed, not only because our lives are demanding, but because we don’t know how to handle the thoughts and emotions constantly bubbling within us. We become agitated and on edge, and we get even more frustrated when the moments we have to rest are ruined by a mind that just won’t stop.
By working with these habits and creating other, more supportive habits, we’re working at the root of the problem so that we don’t get caught in those never ending chains of thoughts when we turn off the lights. This is why mindfulness is so beneficial: it helps us create mental habits that allow us to let go and relax the body into a restful state.
Does Mindfulness Really Help Us Sleep Better?
Although research on mindfulness and sleep is still in its early stages, the results are promising. One study found that mindfulness practice improved moderate sleep problems in older adults, which in turn reduced sleep related daytime impairment.
Another study found that even with a small amount of mindfulness training individuals experienced improvements in sleep quality and duration. Part of what happens when you train in mindfulness is that you learn to detach from thinking patterns that keep you awake (like churning over to do lists, or ruminating about a problem at work).
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You can also cultivate a relaxation response just by focusing on your present moment experience. As you practice more and more, you develop the capacity to relax the body and mind, which goes a long way when it’s time to turn the lights out.
How Mindfulness Can Help You Sleep: Tips and Tricks
- Develop a practice that helps you work with your stress during the day. The way you work with stressful thoughts and emotions during the day will be similar to how you work with them at night.
Do you get overwhelmed and anxious? Or can you let go of those thoughts and allow your mind to rest? Knowing how to relax the mind doesn’t come easily to most of us. It’s a new habit we need to cultivate. So develop a mindfulness practice and stick to it, even if it’s just a few minutes every day. Slowly this will be a new habit that will help you to let go when you want (like when you’re on vacation or going to sleep).
- Notice your reactivity when you can’t fall asleep. When you can’t fall asleep, do you get even more agitated and upset? When you look at the clock and see that you only have a few more hours before you need to wake up, do you feel frustrated?
Of course it’s normal to react and become frustrated when we can’t fall asleep, but that doesn’t mean it helps the situation. The more reactive we get the harder it is to relax and actually fall asleep. So notice how you’re reacting and try to take it easy.
- Both sleep and mindfulness don’t respond well to a heavy hand. Have you ever tried to force yourself to fall asleep when you couldn’t? Sleep isn’t really something we can make happen. It’s more something that we let go into. Mindfulness is similar. If you sit and force yourself to pay attention, your mind might actually revolt by stirring up more thoughts to distract you.
So when you practice mindfulness, try to do it with a soft touch, simply being present without striving to be perfect. Cultivate that attitude when you practice mindfulness, and it will help a lot when it’s time for sleep.
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A Simple Mindfulness Practice to Help You Fall Asleep
Lay down in your bed, get into a comfortable position, close your eyes, and take some deep breaths. Each time you exhale, feel your body sinking more and more into the bed. As you exhale, let go of the tension in your body and mind.
You know that feeling you have after a long, hard day of work, when you just want to turn off your phone and sink into a warm bath with a soft sigh? That’s what we’re looking for here. Give yourself a break, let go of everything you need to handle, it can wait until the morning.
Once you’ve settled down a bit, then return your breathing to normal. Don’t try to control or change your breath in any way. Just be aware of yourself breathing, with your attention ever so gentle. We’re not trying to be hyper aware of anything. Hold your attention with an effort of about 25%. Don’t try to force or make anything happen.
Simply relax the body as you exhale, and lightly be aware of the sensations of the body as you sink into the bed. When the mind wanders (which it will), just notice it’s wandering and bring your awareness back to the body and breath. Be patient and let go of any goals or expectations. Continue to be aware of the breath and the body, noticing what it’s like f where the body touches the mattress.
Hopefully before long you’ll be pleasantly floating into a dream, and snoring loud enough to keep your neighbor up all night.