Following World Sleep Day earlier this month and the coming change of clocks this Sunday March 31 – which tends to throw everyone’s sleep patterns out for a while – I answer a few questions about if and how meditation can help improve your sleep.
1. Is there any research to back up the link between meditation and sleeping better
Thousands of studies of meditation and mindfulness are pointing the way to how this simple act can have a dramatic influence on our mental and physical health. One of the areas where meditation can have a big impact in a short space of time is sleep.
A study in the Netherlands in 2015 found that of the many factors that meditation can change, a better night’s sleep is one of the quickest aspects to improve. The 2015 study explored how just 10 minutes a day of simple meditation and mindfulness exercises could help both beginners and experts in meditation, improve their sleep patterns. The study showed that even a small amount of mindfulness, everyday over a two-week period (even for a novice) can improve our sleep by helping to calm our overactive minds.
2. How does mindfulness meditation help me sleep better?
Mindfulness meditation is one of only two things found to reduce our bodies’ build-up of stress hormones (the other being physical exercise). You cannot take a pill to reduce stress. Stress is a natural physical reaction but many of us have forgotten how to release this stress. Our daily lives are filled with so many triggers to stress that if we don’t learn how to reduce these hormones throughout our day, stress builds and results in a myriad of physical and mental problems – one of the first of which is, of course, problems sleeping.
By taking time to meditate and be mindful, we start to give our brain a break from the 50,000 or so thoughts we have a day and we reduce the build-up of stress hormones in our body. Without this release, stress hormones – adrenaline, cortisol and noreprenephine have an almost stimulant effect on the mind, keeping it awake and growing our fear centre – literally increasing our capacity to worry. Meditation helps this fear centre inside our mind to reduce, it enables stress hormones to leave our mind and body and helps us prepare mentally for sleep.
3. What meditations should I do to help me sleep better?
Meditation is a very personal practice, while one person will love switching off to a guided meditation – a story of relaxation and calm set to enchantingly soporific music to help your mind unwind – another will find the combination of voice, music and story frustrating and become more wound up than before you started.
- The top meditation for calming the mind for sleep is Breathing-based meditation. Breath is the foundation of almost every mindfulness meditation technique. By learning to focus on your breath and letting that breath become the focus of our mind, it starts to enable your thoughts to simply pass by you, without judgement, engagement or criticism. So instead of reliving your day or catastrophising about tomorrow, our thoughts simply float in and out of our mind and our body doesn’t react to them – but simply observes the thoughts. Sounds simple? It takes practice, so be gentle on yourself. Be reassured that even if your mind feels nothing but frustration or boredom by focusing on your breath or a breath-based meditation, your body is starting to release the stress you have built up inside.Deep breathing to trigger a yawn is said to be particularly helpful. You can try this now. First, without changing anything, just focus on the rise and fall of your breath in and out, noticing the movement of your breath in your body and any tension you are holding. Repeat this process for two minutes. Next switch your attention to invite your breath to deepen and soften, feeling the breath move lower into your diaphragm and consciously trying to move your belly button away from your spine as you breathe in and focusing on trying to push the air out from your belly first, as you exhale. Follow this pattern for another two to five minutes. Then let your breath flow naturally, pausing to observe where your breath now moves to and how your body feels, explore this for two to three minutes.
- The body scan – a favourite you may remember your parents sharing with you as a child, is to pay attention to each part of your body in turn, starting with your feet and slowly moving up to your head. Then repeating this, but now inviting a feeling of relaxation, sleepiness and heaviness to enter your body, one part of you at a time, again moving from toes to head – with the hope that by the time you reach your mind you will be asleep. Release the pressure that this technique will make you sleep and just explore it as a way of switching your mind off and dialling down the pressure to be ‘always on’ in your brain.
- Gratitude meditation – often the reason people do not sleep is the recurring whir of worries, regrets and anxieties about what is going to happen playing over and over in their mind. Instead of focusing on the worries of tomorrow. Try to focus your attention on thanks for today. Pause and reflect on three things that you are grateful for, from your day. These don’t have to be big things. Look for the little things.Even on the day one of my best friend’s died, the sun shone, I had a most lovely cup of tea given to me by another friend when we heard the news, I was grateful to have been with another friend (who knew him) at the time, I was grateful to stand outside and feel the sun on my face and feel alive. I was grateful to get home to my family and tell them how much I love them and value them and realise how precious life is.You really do have so much to be grateful for, even on the darkest days – and on the great days – wow! You can then send yourself to sleep, not counting sheep, but counting your blessings.
4. It’s not working – what do I do now?
How long have you given it? 5 minutes one night? Do you truly have a daily practice of at least 10 minutes?
When do you meditate? Just before bedtime? At other points in the day? Are you only mindful for 5 minutes at bedtime and the rest of your life is spent in a fog of worry? One of my clients who came to see me for problems sleeping has found starting her day with meditation always helps her sleep better. She comments, “It’s not just about how I end my day, but the attitude I have to my entire day. Meditating at the start of my day helps set me up in calmer frame of mind so less stress gets to me – and I am able to sleep much better at night as a result.”
5. Is meditation the only way to help me sleep?
Absolutely not, and one of the first places to start is with good sleep hygiene. It’s no good doing a meditation to help you sleep and then logging on to your work emails, checking your phone, mindlessly scrolling through your social media feed after your meditation. Be honest with yourself. Is the meditation not working or is the six cups of coffee you had today? Is it the fact you were up till 10pm working and it’s now 10.30? Your brain is going to need longer to unwind than a 10-minute meditation so read a book, write a letter, enjoy just lying in your bed and letting your mind wander.
For more on sleep hygiene see my article on sleep and meditation here.
As well as working with people individually, I run workshops looking at sleep and meditation and I’m launching an online Meditation Sleep Club – where you enjoy a group-meditation from the comfort of your own home, specifically looking at helping you to sleep better.
If you want to find out more get in touch.
Mindfulness Meditation Teacher