We all experience the occasional bout of restlessness when trying to sleep. Chronic lack of sleep can have serious health issues such as increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, depression and obesity. Our ability to perform and sustain our energy for our responsibilities is hindered and this can also affect our mood making us grouchy, impatient and susceptible to overwhelm.
A few of my participants have shared that they are experiencing trouble getting and staying asleep in recent times. During the course, I refer to one of the obstacles to our mindfulness practice as ‘sleepitation’ which means we set out to practice mindfulness and become so relaxed we fall asleep. While some participants could relate to this, some could not and I noticed a trend began to emerge and I wondered about correlations of their experiences I did some research.
“Sleep is the best meditation.” Dalai Lama
Research published in the Journal of Science indicate that our brains are more active in sleep than wakefulness. In this article on the Huffington Post the Duke University professor Dr. Murali Doraiswamy suggests the brain works harder as it organises, tidies up, purges and flushes out toxins along the way. These metaphorical brain teams can be understood as a janitors that take out the garbage, librarians that organise the books returned to make order out of chaos and lastly, it boosts our immunity and is essential foundation for all of our health.
According to the National Health Service (2013) there are many factors that contribute to difficulty in falling and staying asleep include such as stress, anxiety and pain. With one in three people having difficulty from time to time and one in ten people regularly, how can mindfulness and compassion practices help?
During a pilot study at Stanford Medical Centre (Ong, 2008-2009) improved sleep of 30 insomniacs using Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy course that lasted six weeks. Approximately 60% of participants no longer experienced chronic symptoms of sleep difficulties and this disqualified them as insomniacs. Benefits were sustainable according to the follow up to this study where participants reported they were falling asleep twice as quickly as they did prior to the course.
While there is no one size fits all solution to our sleep problems, there is some advice that you can consider when addressing your individual needs:
- Lifestyle. Diet and exercise matters. If we are eating nutritionally empty foods and consuming stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, sugar and similar additives in abundance, we will be affected. Just like our vehicles need the right type of fuel to keep them running smoothly so does our bodies. Exercise is essential part of our daily routine and can help with the body releasing stress held in the body.
- Conditions. We need to create the conditions for restful sleep. This means turning down stimulation and settling into a bedtime routine that supports restfulness. At least an hour before bed, turn down the volume on sensory stimulating devices – TVs, smartphones and choose instead restful activities such as reading, bedtime yoga or breathing exercises. Any activity that intention is to cultivate rest and relaxation can support you to wind down naturally.
Mindful.org has shared some more tips on this on their website here that’s worth checking out.
A technique I teach clients is a modified body scan practice that can be done when you are having trouble falling or staying asleep:
- Lay on you back in bed. Hands and legs uncrossed. Set intention to witness your awareness and be restful. Consider your motivation for doing so such as health and wellness. For example, “My intention is to be present and aware of my attention and my motivation is to be healthy and well.” You may want to consider the impact of this benefit and the wider result of being well rested on those around you.
- Follow the breath moving in and out of your body wherever this is most obvious to you. You may want to slightly deepen the breath to regulate the in and out breath for the same length and duration. Some people find it helpful to count the breath in to 3-4 seconds and releasing the breath the same. You may want to experiment with just labeling the in breath ‘in’ and the out breath ‘out’ as well so breathing in you are aware you are breathing in and breathing out you are aware you are breathing out.
- Once you feel settled on the rhythm of your breathing, you can begin by moving your awareness around the body. You may wish to do this is a systematic way, although I prefer random approach. For example, bring your attention to the following areas randomly, “left eye, tip of nose, back of head, right knee, chin, right foot, left elbow…”
- Once you feel like the mind is actively engaged in this practice, bring your attention to settle on your core – the lower part of your torso, near the belly button and hold your attention here for a count of 10 breaths. If the mind wanders, that’s okay, as soon as you notice, just gently and kindly return to random moving your awareness around different body parts and returning to the core every so often.
- Keep repeating for as long as you need to.
This practice meets an active mind with an intentional active practice that is interesting enough to engage it and tame it. It’s important that when the mind wanders this is not a problem, it’s the nature of the mind to have thoughts and this happens on it’s own – thoughts are self arising, self displaying and will go on their own if we don’t engage with them and turn thoughts into thinking. Using the attention to cultivate awareness of the body and hold our attention with a gentle and kind attitude can be soothing.
UCLA has a recording of a form of the body scan for sleep here (albeit I don’t really like the music you may!)
Watch this space as I am going to record my own version. You may wish to sign up to the mailing (bottom right corner of page to sign up) to get notified when it’s available.
National Health Service (UK). (2013).
Ong, J. C., Shapiro, S. L., & Manber, R. (2008). Combining Mindfulness Meditation with Cognitive-Behavior Therapy for Insomnia: A Treatment Development Study. Behavior Therapy, 39, 2. 171-182.
Ong, J. C., Shapiro, S. L., & Manber, R. (2009). Mindfulness Meditation and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia: A Naturalistic 12-Month Follow-up. EXPLORE: The Journal of Science and Healing, 5, 1. 30-36.