Mindfulness Exercises To Help You Sleep

photo of the word mindfulness and a person with relaxed handsAre you one of the millions of people who find that worrying about work, family, finances or life in general keeps you awake at night?

If so, practicing simple mindfulness exercises can help you calm your mind and sleep better. The exercises are similar to classic relaxation techniques, but there are some subtle differences.

As you’ll see later in the article, there’s strong evidence that mindfulness helps reduce anxiety, stress and insomnia.

My personal experience practicing mindfulness has been positive. And in a survey of readers of this site, over 80% of people who had tried mindfulness before felt that it helped them.

So hopefully you’ll also find it’s just the thing you’ve been looking for.

mindfulness poll mini infographic saying 80% of readers found it helpful

Contents

I’ll first cover the principles of mindfulness, but you can skip ahead to the following sections if you prefer:

What is mindfulness?

The aim of mindfulness is to take charge of your busy mind, and move it from worrying about everything into a more relaxed state.

A calmer state of mind should help you fall asleep easier. But mindfulness has a wider range of benefits – not just better sleep.

10 benefits of mindfulness infographic

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

You can then manage your worries better, rather than allowing them to spiral out of control.

And the way you do this is by learning and practicing special relaxation, meditation and awareness exercises.

So, for example, you might be lying awake worrying about financial problems. The idea is to become aware of the unhelpful thoughts you’re having, and then allow them to pass.

how mindfulness can help you sleep

You might also hear it referred to as different things: Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction; Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy; or Mindfulness-based Therapy for Insomnia.

Some of these are aimed at treating depression and mental health issues. But in this article I’ll focus on how mindfulness might help you sleep better.

The principles of mindfulness

The brain in ‘doing’ mode

image representing the brain thinkingThe brain is excellent at task-based problems. For example, when an engineer is solving a technical problem or a hairdresser is deciding how to shape someone’s 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 experiences and knowledge, which it thinks might help you complete the current task.

And it does this without you consciously trying to recall past events. This ‘doing’ mode of the brain is very powerful and essential to everyday life.

When the ‘doing’ mode is unhelpful

A big drawback of the ‘doing’ mode is that the brain also uses it when dealing with emotion-based problems. But problems involving a lot of emotion usually can’t be fixed in the same way.

For example, if you’re worrying about tomorrow’s job interview, your brain will default to the ‘doing’ mode.

It might 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 by presenting examples of unsuccessful, nerve-wracking interviews could make you more worried.

That can then lead to you asking broader questions like “why can’t I do well in interviews”. And so the worry train picks up steam.

In other situations, this ruminating can lead to questions like:

  • “why am I always tired or unhappy?”
  • “why can’t my relationships go more smoothly?”

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

Put your brain in the ‘being’ mode

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

It teaches you how to develop this ‘being’ approach when faced with thoughts which worry 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 have to learn to live in the present, not the past or future.

That might sound like a bit of spiritual cliché to some people; but it’s one of the core principles of mindfulness – and one that works.

So how do you ‘live in the moment’?

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

You might still have the same thoughts swirling around your mind. But rather than focusing on them, you learn to acknowledge them in a compassionate way. And recognize that they are just thoughts.

One approach is to try to see your thoughts as passing clouds – white ones for good thoughts, grey ones for worrying thoughts.

You’re still aware of them and acknowledge them. It’s almost as if you’re an observer noting the thoughts, but not acting on them.

photo of passing white and grey clouds

You aren’t trying to stop these thoughts, and probably couldn’t even if you tried. You don’t need to get upset, disappointed or even angry that you’re having them. The idea is to view them in a different way.

And by doing so, you can prevent the downwards spiral of increasing worry, anxiety and stress keeping you awake at night.

This is of course easier said than done, and it can take time and patience to really feel the difference.

Don’t let that stop you though: the rewards are well worth the effort, and many people will see some benefits right from the start.

How to do mindfulness meditation

be present in the momentThere are different approaches to using mindfulness to help you sleep. And there are two key elements:

  • Acknowledge the thoughts buzzing around your brain in a compassionate or positive way.
  • Shift into the ‘being’ mode, by doing meditation exercises.

The meditation exercises help 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 or whilst in bed.

1. Breathing awareness exercise

calm sign saying 'breathe'

  • Lie down on your back with your arms relaxed by your sides. Take a few seconds to get comfortable.
  • Bring your awareness to your breathing. Can you feel your breath coming in and going out?
  • There’s no right way to breathe. Just relax and breathe normally.
  • Try to imagine the air is coming from far away, and you blow it out to a distant place.
  • You might also say the words ‘in’ and ‘out’ in your mind to match your breathing. Or perhaps think of the word ‘relax’ on each out breath.
  • Concentrate on your chest rising and falling – can you feel it? Can you taste or smell the air as you breathe in? Is it cool or warm?
  • Your mind will probably wander at some point, and thoughts may arise.
  • Don’t worry if you have thoughts. Acknowledge them, and then gently bring your focus back to your breathing.
  • As you continue breathing, feel your body gently sink into your mattress little by little.

You can do this breathing exercise any time you feel the need to during the day. Just 5 minutes can help, but you might like to build up to 20 minutes over time.

And if you do it in bed, you can either do if it for a few minutes or until you feel too sleepy to continue.

2. Body scan relaxation exercise

woman lying down and relaxingThe body scan technique relies on getting your mind to focus on different parts of your body.

There are different methods, and one that I’ve found effective is to imagine taking your mind on a trip around your body.

  • Lie down and get yourself comfortable.
  • Imagine your mind leaving your head, and travelling through your body to one of your feet.
  • How does your foot feel? Is it relaxed, tense or sore? Is it hot or cold?
  • Don’t make any judgments on how it feels – simply scan and observe how you feel.
  • Imagine your toe and foot muscles tightening, and relaxing again.
  • Then take your mind up to your calf, knee and thigh.
  • Stop in each body part to repeat the scanning, muscle tensing and relaxing.
  • Repeat the exercise with your other leg.
  • Move to a hand and work your way up both arms.
  • Scan, tense and relax your back, stomach, chest, shoulders and face.
  • You can either imagine your muscles tensing and relaxing, or physically tense and relax them – do what feels best.
  • You’ll know it’s starting to work when your limbs begin to feel heavy and you’re happy to sink comfortably into your mattress.
  • You might find your mind wanders at times. Acknowledge any thoughts that arise in a positive way, but bring your mind gently back to the exercise.

I find that combining  the above two exercises when I go to bed can be even better – try doing one followed by the other.

You might also like to listen to the relaxation podcast by Professor Colin Espie from the University of Oxford. With a calming voice, he talks you through a simple muscle relaxation exercise step by step.

And for more ideas of guided audios, have a read of the mindfulness resources section.

Evidence that mindfulness works

There’s increasing evidence for the many benefits of mindfulness, as well as specifically for sleep problems.

In 2014, researchers from U.S. Universities reported on an eight week trial involving 54 adults with chronic insomnia.

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

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 in 2016, a team of researchers reviewed all the studies of mindfulness and sleep done between 2012 and 2016. And they came to a positive conclusion:

The studies reviewed found significant impacts of MBIs (Mindfulness Based Interventions) on insomnia and sleep disturbance, and these effects were especially strong in studies primarily aimed at improving sleep.

Recommended mindfulness Apps, books, courses and therapy

This article is only a brief introduction to mindfulness. If you want to learn more, there are different options to suit your budget and learning style.

A) Apps

There are numerous mindfulness Apps. Most of them have a free introduction series of sessions. But some then ask you to subscribe for a small monthly fee to continue.

Two that I’ve used are:

Calm

  • Very highly rated and won a best App prize in 2017.
  • Comprehensive once you find your way around.
  • The initial 7 day series on sleep has to be followed in sequence, but provides a good grounding in mindfulness.

Take a Break

  • One of the top rated mindfulness and meditation Apps by customers.
  • Easy to use and listen to.
  • Gives you a range of options with different relaxing background sounds and play lengths.
  • You can also adjust the sound for both the background and voice.

B) Books

mindfulness bookLike the Apps, there are many self-help books which teach you mindfulness. One I personally recommend 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, and explains the principles clearly.

It comes with a CD with excellent guided meditations, which I still sometimes use.

You can find it, and other mindfulness books, online or in book stores.

C) Online courses

There are a number of organizations who offer online courses. Many 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 those from organizations that also specialize in research into mindfulness, for example:

D) Therapy courses

If you or your doctor feel you would benefit from undertaking a dedicated therapy course, you might be able to find an organization offering a mindfulness therapy program.

These are often quite expensive, so you need to be sure that it’s right for you.

If you have serious and ongoing sleep problems, ask your doctor if you can get help through your health insurance or national health service, depending on your country.

The therapy approach to sleep problems, rather than sleeping pills, is gaining increasing credibility with the medical professionals.

And in May 2016, the American College of Physicians issued guidance about the use of cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of insomnia.

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.

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’ve 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.

So it might be worth checking online if your local area has a mindfulness group class you can attend.

Taking a holistic approach

sleeping womanMindfulness is most effective if used as part of a wider attempt to improve your sleep. So it’s also important to take positive steps, such as ensuring you have the best lifestyle to help you sleep.

So I also recommend my articles about good sleep habits. You’ll find advice about important factors such as food and drink, use of technology, maintaining a good sleep schedule, and creating the right bedroom environment.

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 experience in the comments below.

18 CommentsLeave a comment

  • @Chandra Shekhar: I am in exactly the same situation, about 3 months now. The underlying issue was cured, but insomnia stayed. I think we both are in the state of hyperarousal, which prevents the brain from relaxing. Have you found a cure? If yes, what did you do?

  • 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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    Thanks for your comment! Don't worry if it doesn't appear right away. All comments are held for moderation, and will appear when I have a chance to read them, which can take a few days. But I can promise that I read all comments unless they contain numerous links, in which case I recommend writing again with maximum 1 link. Thanks again. Ethan

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