Are 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.
You can skip ahead to the following sections if you prefer:
- What mindfulness is and how it can help you sleep.
- Step by step mindfulness exercises.
- Research evidence that mindfulness works.
- Information about mindfulness books, courses, Apps and therapy.
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.
You can also see in the graph below that people found mindfulness useful to help them tackle other issues around anxiety and worry.
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.
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
The 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
Mindfulness 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.
One 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.
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
As 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.
There’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
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.
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
Mindfulness 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.
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.