I know I’m stressed when the quality of my sleep suffers - I was up at 3am this morning and the one before. It’s quite common - studies show over 35% of the UK population experience struggle getting to sleep at least once a week, 1 in 5 have trouble falling asleep each night and around 1.3 million searches for ‘melatonin’ (the sleep hormone released at night to help promote sleep) the past 12 months.
Sleep is both a cause and a symptom of stress - we’ve all probably experienced a bad night sleep, which then drag us in to a negative cycle of being tired, lacking motivation and energy to do the daily tasks leading to having less time to unwind…then onto another bad night’s sleep. I know the attention to nutrition tends to wane too, less nutritious food and lots more black coffee - both things not supportive to positive sleep hygiene!
Given we spend approximately a third of our lives asleep (or at least trying to), it’s clear to see why sleep is essential for the body to function properly. Along with eating, drinking and breathing, sleeping is one of the pillars for maintaining good mental and physical health. Sleep is an essential and involuntary process, without which we cannot function effectively, and helps to repair and restore our brains, not just our bodies.
There are a number of ways in which we can improve our sleep hygiene to give us the best possible chance of a decent nights rest, there are a few here: https://www.sleepfoundation.org/sleep-hygiene. Here though, how meditation can help with improving our sleep.
‘Sleep is the best meditation’ – Dalai Lama
Studies into meditation have found that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training (8-week mindfulness-based stress response program) positively impacts the brain regions responsible for the stress response and the overactive mind, the amygdala and the default mode network respectively. I have written about both in more detail here: Meditation & the Amygdala and here: Meditation & the DFN
We all face stressful situations throughout life and on a daily basis – whether missing the train by a minute knowing you’ll be late for work or caring for a loved one with a serious illness. Whatever the trigger may be, the body’s automatic stress response (also known fight, flight or freeze) becomes activated. In a matter of seconds, we’re releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline that keep us alert, our heart rate increases, breathing accelerates and muscles tense up. So along with mental and emotional symptoms, stress has physical symptoms too - headaches, back pain, and heartburn are just a few of the stress-related ailments we may experience. It’s easy to see why stress and anxiety are known to impact sleep.
These life stressors cannot be avoided, tho it’s been demonstrated through a number of studies that meditation helps to regulate emotions and reduce cortisol levels - effectively practicing mindfulness mediation activates the relaxation response (parasympathetic nervous system) and bring the body back to its resting state. This can help us whenever we’re feeling the need for calm like before an important meeting or to help get to sleep.
This study researched the affects of mindfulness meditation on people suffering insomnia by analyzing how the practice affected 49 adults with moderate sleep issues. The participants were randomly assigned 6 weeks of meditation practice or sleep hygiene education. At the end of the study, the meditation group experienced fewer insomnia symptoms and less daytime fatigue.
An over-active mind.
Our minds wander often – this is completely normal. And it seems the mind is always most active when it comes to bedtime! The head hits the pillow and all of a sudden everything comes rushing in, and we’re jumping from one thing to another - making it feel very difficult to drift off to sleep. Buddhists describe this as the ‘monkey mind’ and famously Harvard psychologists have found that the mind wanders for 47% of our waking hours!
Meditation practice is slowing down and intentionally (but gently), paying attention to something i.e. breathing or bodily sensations – with our attention having a fixed point of focus, we’re not thinking about other things, in this spaciousness, the mind has an opportunity to rest too.
In practicing mindfulness with our thoughts, we’re entering into a different relationship with our inner experience - learning that by employing the stance of an impartial witness, there is a difference between ‘thoughts’ and ‘thinking.’ This commonly used metaphor may help put this into context:
“We are sitting on the bank of a river and the water is flowing in front of us. The activities of our mind are represented by the flow and eddy of the river, or by the leaves which float past in the current. We remain sitting on the bank, just allowing the river to flow. When we get drawn into the thoughts, it is as if we have jumped into the river. We don’t have to jump into the river”
The attention will drift away from the breathing and return things concerning us but we train ourselves to go back to it over and over. This refocusing has a relaxing effect and helps to interrupt ruminative thinking or negative or worrying thoughts which may be looping. In this context the breath (and the physical sensations that the breath brings the body) offers a simple, consistent, and accessible tool to practice with – just as long as we’re alive, it’s always occurring.
Here’s 10 minute breath meditation for sleep you can try: cultivating-awareness.com/guided-meditations