Mindfulness Exercises To Help You Sleep

mindfulness image with different relaxing wordsAre you one of the millions of people who find that thinking or worrying about work, life or family keeps you awake at night?

Maybe you’ve even found yourself in a vicious cycle of worrying about not being able to sleep, with that worry itself becoming the reason you can’t sleep?

If that sounds all too familiar, then fortunately there are some practical steps you can take. In a previous article I looked at simple relaxation techniques which can help you sleep.

Here I’ll be explaining how practicing mindfulness exercises might also help you. They do share some similarities with other relaxation techniques, but there are also some subtle differences.

Based on my own personal experience, I can highly recommend mindfulness as a way to reduce nighttime stress and deal with insomnia.

So if all else has failed, with a little luck you may also find that mindfulness is just the thing you’ve been looking for.

Contents

You can skip ahead to the following sections if you prefer:

Mindfulness polls

In 2015, I asked more than 370 readers about their views on mindfulness. I was pleased to see that of the readers who had tried mindfulness before, the majority found that it helped. Although 13 people said it didn’t help, a total of 57 found it to be either quite or very helpful.

graph showing the results of a poll about mindfulnessYou can also see in the graph below that people found mindfulness useful to help them tackle other issues around anxiety and worry.

graph showing mindfulness poll 2 results

What is Mindfulness?

The overall aim of the mindfulness technique is to take charge of your brain and move it from worrying about everything into a more relaxed and calm state, allowing you to nod off.

It’s all about focusing your attention on the present moment; bringing your mind into awareness of your thoughts, feelings, emotions and physical sensations.

By doing so you can then manage them better, rather than allowing them to over-run you. And the way you do this is by learning and practicing special relaxation, meditation and awareness exercises.

how mindfulness can help you sleep

So, for example, if you’re lying awake worrying about financial problems, you would be able to become aware of the kind of unhelpful thoughts you’re having, and then allow them to pass.

The general relaxation and meditation approaches covered by mindfulness have been practiced for thousands of years. Despite its history though, today it’s definitely not religious, myth or cult based.

Scientific research is increasingly showing that mindfulness can help overcome a large number of problems, especially stress related ones. This includes depression and sleep disturbance.

You might also hear it referred to in a number of different ways, including Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy or Mindfulness-based Therapy for Insomnia. Some of these are specific therapies aimed at treating depression and other mental health issues.

In this article though, I’ll be focusing specifically on how the techniques might help you sleep.

The theory and principles of mindfulness

The brain in ‘doing’ mode

image representing the brain thinkingThe brain is excellent at task-based problems or challenges. For example, when an engineer is solving a complex technical problem, or a hairdresser is deciding how to shape someone’s difficult hair.

This is sometimes called the ‘doing’ mode, in which the brain tries to work out the logical steps required to solve the problem. It’s also called ‘goal’ based, as you’re trying to achieve a specific outcome.

In the ‘doing’ mode your brain continually searches your memories for previous events, actions or knowledge which it thinks might help you complete the current task. And it does this without you even knowing or consciously trying to recall past events.

This ‘doing’ mode of the brain is very powerful and absolutely essential to everyday life, work and play.

The problem with the ‘doing’ mode

The big drawback of the ‘doing’ mode is that the brain also uses the same approach when dealing with emotion-based problems. However, they usually can’t be fixed in the same way.

As an example, if you’re in bed and find yourself thinking about a job interview, your brain will still default to the ‘doing’ mode. It may try to recall your past interviews or similar situations. It’s trying to help you solve the problem by presenting previous examples for you to consider.

But in this case it can’t really solve the problem of ensuring your interview goes well. And in fact, presenting past examples when things didn’t go well might actually make you even more worried.

You might then find yourself asking broader questions like “why can’t I do well in interviews”. And so the worry spirals out of control. In other situations, this over-thinking by your brain can lead to you asking yourself questions like:

  • “why am I always tired?”
  • “why am I feeling unhappy?”
  • “why can’t my relationships go more smoothly?”
  • “why won’t my children do what I ask them to do?”

These types of emotional issues just don’t lend themselves to a goal or analytically based ‘doing’ approach.

You can end up in a vicious circle of self-critical questioning, with your brain busy feeding these feelings with other bad examples from your past. Your brain thinks it’s helping you but often it really isn’t! It can be a recipe for ever-increasing stress and sleep disturbance.

The brain in ‘being’ mode

live in the momentMindfulness takes a very different approach by suggesting that there is an alternative ‘being’ mode for your brain.

It teaches you how to develop this ‘being’ approach when faced with situations or thoughts which are worrying you.

The first hurdle is to recognize that thoughts are only thoughts. They are not reality, nor are they good predictors of the future.

In essence you must live for the present, not the past or future.

But how do you do that?

In the ‘being’ mode you aim to take much more notice of your body and of your surroundings.

You still have the same thoughts swirling around your mind. But rather than focusing on solving them, you learn to acknowledge them in a compassionate way, whilst recognizing they are no more than just thoughts.

picture of relaxing cloudsOne approach is to try to see your thoughts as passing clouds, white ones for good thoughts, black ones for bad or worrying thoughts.

You are still aware of them and acknowledge them mentally in a non-critical way. It’s almost as if you’re an observer noting the thoughts, but not acting on them.

So you aren’t trying to stop all these thoughts, and probably couldn’t even if you tried. But you can view them in a different way. By doing so you may stop the downwards spiral of more and more worry keeping you awake at night.

This is of course easier said than done. Indeed, as discussed below, most books and programs suggest it can take time and patience over a period of weeks to really feel the difference.

Don’t let that you stop you though: the rewards are well worth the effort, and many people do find some benefit from the outset.

How to do mindfulness meditation

There are several different approaches to using mindfulness to help you sleep. There are two key elements in the approaches:

  • Acknowledging the thoughts or worries buzzing around your brain in a compassionate or positive way, as discussed above. Get your brain into a ‘being’ mode rather than the ‘doing’ mode.
  • To help get you into the ‘being’ mode you can do special meditation exercises. This should help you relax, as well as moving the focus of your thinking from your worries towards your body.

The aim here is to get your brain to focus on your inner self, to slow it down and relax. And to do this there are two traditional meditation techniques, both of which you can do before going to bed or whilst in bed.

1) A breathing awareness exercise

breathing words written around a candleAs you lie in bed bring your awareness to your breathing. Can you feel your breath coming in and going out?

There’s no right way to breathe, and no need to control your breath. Just relax and breathe however is natural to you.

Try to imagine the air is coming from far away and you are blowing it out to a distant place. You might also say to yourself ‘in’ and ‘out’ to match your breathing. Or perhaps think of the word ‘relax’ on each out breath.

Concentrate on your chest or abdomen rising and falling – can you feel it? Can you taste the air as it enters your mouth? Is it cool or warm? Is there any scent?

Your mind will probably wander at some point, and thoughts will arise. Each time it does, don’t worry about it. Acknowledge the thoughts you have, then gently bring your focus back to your breathing.

You may find that this happens many times, and that’s perfectly normal. So don’t worry if it does, don’t criticize yourself or worry that you’re not doing it properly or it isn’t working.

Just keep bringing your attention back to the breath. And as you do this, little by little feel your body gently sink into your mattress.

There are more complex breathing exercises you can do, and some of the suggestions below will help you find out more about them. But if you want something immediate to do, this breathing exercise can be done the next time you go to bed.

In my experience, simply focusing on your breathing in bed can be extremely effective at helping you avoid being consumed by your worries.

2) Body scan relaxation

Again there are different methods you could try. One that I’ve found effective is to imagine taking your brain on a trip around your body.

Start by imagining your brain leaving your head and travelling through your body to one of your feet. Once there, imagine your toe and foot muscles tightening and then relaxing.

Then imagine taking your mind up to your calf, knee and thigh. Stopping in each place to repeat the muscle tensing and relaxing. You can then repeat the exercise with your other leg

Following this, start with a hand and work your way up both arms. Eventually you can scan, tense and relax your back, stomach, chest, shoulders, head and face.

You can either imagine your muscles tensing and relaxing, or physically tense and relax them. Whichever you feel more comfortable with.

You will know it’s starting to work for you when your limbs start to feel heavy and are happy to sink comfortably into your mattress.

As with the breathing technique, you may find your mind wanders many times. And as before, acknowledge these thoughts in a positive way, but bring your mind gently back to concentrate on your muscles.

Combining breathing and muscle relaxation

I find it can be helpful to combine both these relaxation techniques when I go to bed. You can do one followed by the other, using the techniques described above.

Alternatively, you can listen to this excellent relaxation podcast by Professor Colin Espie from the University of Oxford which talks you through it step by step.

Evidence that mindfulness works

There’s increasing evidence that mindfulness exercises can help you to reduce your anxiety levels. It can also provide you with new ways to manage stress.

In 2010 the UK Mental Health Foundation published a detailed report based on the results of various clinical studies and research on mindfulness. Some of the benefits they highlight are:

  • 70 per cent reduction in anxiety.
  • Increase in disease-fighting antibodies, suggesting improvements to the immune system.
  • Longer and better quality sleep, with fewer sleep disturbances.
  • Reduction in negative feelings like anger, tension and depression.
  • Improvements in physical conditions as varied as psoriasis, fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.

More recently in 2014 researchers from a number of US Universities reported the outcome of an eight week trial involving fifty-four adults with chronic insomnia.

People taking part underwent Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction, Mindfulness-based Therapy for Insomnia, or a self-monitoring regime.

Overall the researchers found that both of the mindfulness programs were more effective than the self-monitoring routine. They concluded that:

Mindfulness meditation appears to be a viable treatment option for adults with chronic insomnia and could provide an alternative to traditional treatments for insomnia.

And finally, an interesting study by the University of Minnesota showed that mindfulness therapy can be as effective as medication for treating insomnia.

I’ve also personally noticed a big increase in the number of research projects looking at whether these techniques should be tried before resorting to drug treatments, which can have serious long-term implications.

Mindfulness books, on-line courses and therapy

This article is of course only a very brief introduction to mindfulness exercises, and with a particular focus on using them to help you sleep.

If you want to learn more, or get support to develop the techniques, then there are several good options to suit your budget and learning style.

A) Books

mindfulness bookThere’s a wide range of available books about mindfulness. The one I personally used and found very enjoyable is “Mindfulness: a practical guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World” by Mark Williams and Danny Penman.

The book is much broader than just using mindfulness for sleep, but is still very useful. It has a CD with excellent guided meditations, which I still sometimes use two years after first buying the book. You can find it online and in many bookshops.

B) On-Line Courses

There are a number of organizations who offer on-line courses. Most of them are based on general mindfulness principles and not just about sleep. Most charge for their courses.

If you’re interested you might want to look at the ones from organizations that also specialize in research into mindfulness, for example:

  • Be Mindful – sponsored by the UK Mental Health Foundation
  • MBSR online – from the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of Massachusetts
  • Palouse mindfulness – a free online course

C) Apps

There are an increasing number of Apple and Android Apps available to help you with mindfulness, including some free ones. There’s not a lot of difference between some of the Apps as far as I can tell. So it may be a case of testing them until you find one which suits you best.

One I personally liked is the Take a Break App (not an affiliate link!). It’s also currently one of the top-rated mindfulness and meditation Apps by customers.

I found it very easy to use and listen to. It gives you a range of options with different relaxing background sounds and play lengths. And you can also adjust the sound for both the background and voice to get the right level for you.

Like most of the Apps, there are options to purchase other exercises. Equally, they’re fairly low cost, so if you enjoy the general approach of the APP, it might be interesting to try a few alternative exercises.

D) Therapy courses

If you or your doctor feel you would benefit from attending a dedicated therapy course, you might be able to find an organization offering a mindfulness-based therapy program. These are often quite expensive, so you need to be sure that it’s right for you.

In cases of severe insomnia, you could discuss with your doctor whether you can get help through your health insurance or, in the UK, the National Health Service.

Again, this therapy approach is gaining more and more support from the medical professionals. In May 2016, the respected American College of Physicians issued guidance about the use of cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of insomnia.

Their thinking was based on reviewing relevant reports and research from the last 11 years. They recommended that:

  • All adult patients receive cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia as the initial treatment for chronic insomnia disorder.

  • Clinicians use a shared [patient and doctor] decision-making approach, including a discussion of the benefits, harms, and costs of short-term use of medications, to decide whether to add pharmacological therapy in adults with chronic insomnia disorder in whom cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia alone was not effective.

E) Group courses

Such is the growing popularity of mindfulness, that in many major cities and towns you can often find group courses.

I know people who have attended 8 week courses in London, San Francisco, Madrid and Sevilla. As well as helping them deal with stress or sleep problems, they all reported enjoying the courses and making new friends along the way.

You can search online for groups in your local area, ask your doctor, or inquire at local community or health centers.

Taking a holistic approach

sleeping womanMindfulness is best used as part of a wider attempt to improve your sleep, stress and anxiety levels. It’s also important to take positive steps such as ensuring you have the best lifestyle to help you sleep.

I recommend looking at the articles covering sleep hygiene. There you’ll find advice about important factors such as food and drink, use of technology, maintaining a good sleep schedule and creating a good bedroom environment.

My personal belief is that mindfulness is most likely to work for you if all the other parts of the sleep jigsaw are in place too.

Indeed most doctors or sleep professionals will often focus on these aspects of your sleep routine first. They can then focus on treatment options.

And, if your doctor suggests immediate drug treament rather than discussing a therapy option, you might want to ask them about these other options too.

Your views

I’d love to hear your thoughts about mindfulness. Have you tried it before, or do you think it’s something you’d be willing to try? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

17 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Hi Ethan, found your website very useful and assuring. My insomnia started as gastro acid reflux some two months back and now the cause is cured but insomnia remains! I do all of the breathing exercises and mindfulness tricks and they are helpful but still there are nights when even though there is no anxiety or running thoughts, still I can’t sleep! I don’t feel tired next day though, curtsey the meditations you shared, but not sure how long would it continue. Earlier I could sleep any where any time but now, struggle to get an average sleep! I hope this would pass soon, but when, don’t know. I don’t want to take allopathy medicines as every doctor gave me antibiotics depression, anti anxiety and sleep pill. The sleeping pill made me feel confused next
    day! Would I ever get back those old days! Can I try to sleep 1-2 hours in the day to compensate the night loss? Any idea, how long would it take through the mediation route, to recover?
    Please suggest.
    Chandra Shekhar

    • Hi Chandra
      Thanks for your comment. I’m sure you’ll get back to sleeping well in time. Sometimes we can completely miss the reason we’re not sleeping well if we’re thinking about a different possible cause. So maybe in your case, you’re missing a different cause because you’re thinking so much about anxiety etc. I’d recommend having a look at my articles about sleep hygiene, and see if there’s anything in there that you are or aren’t doing. You might find the current sleep problems are caused by something you hadn’t thought about!
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I have insomnia for more than a month now due to awareness of my consciousness/sleep that is preventing me from falling asleep. I have difficulty to let go to sleep because of my own mind. When I try to really focus on restricting myself from thinking of sleep, I tend to also stop breathing unintentionally. To the point that I also developed fear of my breathing(think that Im controlling it and feels short of breath). I think i was better off not thinking about breathing because im afraid that what if I cant drifft off to sleep when I think about breathing? What if I forget to breath when I sleep which I know is impossible? What can I do to stop myself from having these fears of sleeping and breathing?

    • Hi Chacha
      Thanks for your comment. Well, it sounds like you’ve got yourself into a classic vicious cycle of worrying about sleep being the thing that stops you sleeping!
      The first thing to say is that there’s no way you can forget to breathe when sleeping. That’s just not going to happen, so try to put that thought out of your mind.
      Second, if you’re lying in bed worrying about your breathing or sleep, perhaps try a different exercises to take your mind of it. You could try progressive muscle relaxation for example, or a guided meditation. And even just listening to relaxing music or the radio might help you to stop focusing so much on your breathing and sleep.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hello sir, my name is James and I’ve been surfing from anxiety for a couple months now. I just had a question. You say to allow thoughts to come in and not judge them and to look at them with compassion, but what if the thoughts bring fear, like a thought about not being able to feel like my old self again? Or how would I use mindfulness for sleep if sleep is something I dread or fear? Thank you.

    • Hi James
      Thanks for your comment. It doesn’t matter if the thought is positive or negative. The idea is not to allow yourself to feel bad that you’re having thoughts at all. Many people think meditation should be about having a totally empty mind. But actually, it’s normal in this kind of practice to have thoughts. The idea is to not get stuck on that thought by worrying about it. So just allow it to drift in and out of your mind, even if it’s a potentially scary thought.
      As for the sleep question, why is it that you fear sleep? And you can still do the same thing – even if you start having thoughts about being scared to go to sleep, try not to dwell on them or get upset that you’re having them. Allow them to come if they do, and gently let them go again.
      Regards
      Ethan

    • Hi James, I suffer a very similar fear , I’ve been advised to focus on feeling safe acknowledge that you are at home, in your room in your bed, you are warm, comfortable etc etc it can help nudge the fear away a little, don’t worry about being your old self, I know what you mean but be your best (or worst!) new self and be kind to you, best wishes and sweet dreams to you!

  • I’ve used the breathing technique for some weeks now to help with sleep. At 71 my bladder is more urgent than it used to be, but, since using the technique, I can now sleep through the night without having to get up to the toilet. I do “surface” from sleep at intervals, but by returning to the breath, I go back to sleep again.

    • Hi Derry
      Thanks for your comment. It’s great that mindfulness techniques have helped you to sleep better. And it’s fascinating to hear that you feel it’s helped with your bladder. I’ve never heard of that effect before! I also think it’s good to remember to repeat techniques like this if you wake up in the night. It can definitely help to prevent anxiety that you’re not asleep.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • In 2006 I was in a car accident, injuries included a C1 Jefferson fracture, mild TBI which, through testing includes a working memory disorder, depression, chronic pain, anosmia and other issues. A significant problem that was never properly addressed was and is a severe sleep disorder. Before my accident I was an average sleeper, 8 hours was great, I could function on 6-7. Since the accident I need approx 14 -16 hours every night.
    A sleep study in Jan 2010 revealed that I had “very severe fragmentation” only entered Stage 1 and 2 sleep with no REM sleep waking 17.5 times an hour. I started taking sleeping pills to help “put me into a deeper sleep” and stimulant medication to “keep me awake” during the day. While I “believed” this medication was helping me, I continued to feel exhausted. In June 2014 I went to another sleep clinic and was surprised to learn that the EEG showed no significant changes to the first study.. EVEN THOUGH THE STUDY WAS DONE WHILE I WAS ON MY MEDICATION. Once again I had no stage 3 or REM sleep, severe initial and maintenance insomnia.

    Still on a tackle box of meds, and having tried almost every type of treatment, (massage, chiro, physic etc) in Jan 2010 I came across a 13 week MBSR chronic pain mindfulness program modelled after John Kabat-Zinn’s course. Over the years I completed about 8 of these courses (higher levels), also in 2011 I started attending silent retreats, and have been attending on average 3-4 per year varying in length from 4-9 days. I have a home based practice, am affiliated with a number of Sanghas and a bhikkhuni Hermitage, do a home study program, have audited an MBSR teacher training program, read, study and attend lectures when I can. I recently completed the 31 days of Mindfulness and The Science of Happiness put on by Berkeley edX.
    When I practice meditation and mindfulness I “feel” more rested and am more productive. In fact I believe I get better restorative rest when I meditate than when I “sleep”. I am not a scientist, I was a personal injury lawyer before my accident – no doctor has been able to give me any answers or assistance. My EEG shows continuous waking, even with the sleep medication. My belief is that when I meditate, my brain waves may be mimicking the deeper stage 3 sleep patterns needed for my body to heal. In essence when I meditate I am tricking my brain into believing that it is going into “sleep mode” which then triggers the sleep mechanisms of my brain. If that is “in fact” the case, I may consider giving up sleep and opting for a 3 hour meditation instead. Do you have any information or advise on this? I am still exhausted…. mindfully yours, mindfulme

    • Hi mindfulme

      Thanks for your comment and for sharing your interesting, though clearly difficult, story. It’s always fascinating to hear from readers who have had such an intense and deep experience with sleep disorders or forms of treatment / self-help.

      To get to your question, unfortunately I don’t have any information about the merits of trying to entirely replace sleep with meditation. To be honest, with the depth of study you’ve invested in mindfulness, I imagine you will have come across more articles or information about what you can really do with it than I have!

      Have you spoken to any of the authors of the books or courses you mention for their advice? I’d be interested to know what they have to say.

      My personal feelings would be that it’s not wise to abandon sleep altogether. Even if you’re not entering the more restorative stages of sleep, I think it’s still good to try to adhere to a daily pattern of going to sleep. Even if for you that means less of it, and not the same quality as most people. I think that psychologically it’s important to have that routine. I can’t imagine that doing 3 hours meditation a day on an on-going basis would be sustainable. What about doing a combination of both? Try to get some sleep, or as much as you can, and then also do meditation to top up what you might be missing. Do you think that could work?

      Regards
      Ethan

  • I suffer from depression and sometimes, when it’s bad, I lie awake and can’t sleep for hours…I’m not even worrying, I’m just staring into space…It’s exhausting.

    • Hi Rosa,

      Thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear you suffer from depression and that it affects your sleep in such a way. I think you still might find mindfulness helpful, even if you’re not worrying. Give it a go!
      Regards
      Ethan

  • It is harder right now. I’m a classic example of being unemployed and that creates a lot of stress. To counter the stress, I’m taking time to do things that alleviate the stress. Long walks with the dog help. So did the rainbow a couple of nights ago. (I took it as a sign of hope). I’ve got more time to spend with my family. These things aren’t eliminating the situation we’re in, but they help create a balance.

    • Hi Popova
      Thanks for your comment, and sorry to hear things are difficult right now for you and your family. It’s great that you have recognised that you’re under a lot of stress, and that you’re trying to do something about it. Going for long walks helps me too I find. In fact, I sometimes listen to mindfulness meditation tracks with headphones when I’m walking. They help me to stop ruminating about problems, but instead focus on the things I’m seeing, smelling, feeling etc on the walk.
      I hope things improve for you soon and that the hope the rainbow brought you transforms into good things.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I have found your website very useful. I am about to begin seeing a therapist regarding my tinnitus and she has mentioned the use of mindfulness in her sessions.
    I am currently very impressed with Kalms and have started to use their day pills for anxiety, but early days!
    Just one note on Kirkland Sleep aid. Wow, they really knock you out but I must admit I felt terrible the next day, low mood and physically unable to do anything,so won’t be using them again.
    Ian

    • Hi Ian,

      Thank you for your comment. I’m very pleased you found the website useful – thank your for saying so.
      It’s also good to hear from someone who is thinking of trying mindfulness. I also have tinnitus, and as you know, it’s often worse at night when you’re in a silent room and you become aware of it. I think mindfulness would be helpful for both taking your attention away from it, and also not worrying about the fact that it’s there. So I believe your therapist is right about it.
      Thanks for the notes about the sleep aids. I’m glad you found the kalms helpful, and yes kirkland is one of the stronger over the counter sleep aids I reviewed in another article. As with all sleep aids though, they won’t agree with everyone unfortunately.
      All the best
      Ethan

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