Do you often lie awake at night worrying about relationships, money, school or work, your health, family or friends?
Perhaps you feel stressed about having insomnia, and just thinking about sleep annoyingly turns into the very reason you can’t sleep!
If this sounds familiar, doing mindfulness exercises might help calm your mind. And by reducing how much you ruminate at night, hopefully you’ll relax and fall asleep a little easier.
Even on particularly stressful days (which I still have), I can usually stop myself from lying awake for hours with a simple breathing exercise that gets me out of my head and focusing on the rhythm of my body instead.
In this article, I’ll explain what mindfulness is and how it works. I’ll also give you some step-by-step instructions for techniques you can try right now. And then suggest where you can find out more, including some good free resources.
I’ll first cover the principles of mindfulness, but you can skip ahead to later sections if you prefer:
- What is mindfulness?
- The principles of mindfulness
- How to do mindfulness meditation (two exercises)
- Research evidence that mindfulness works
- Recommended Apps, self-help books and courses
The aim of mindfulness is to take charge of your busy mind, and move it from worrying 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.
The key is to focus your attention on the present moment. Bring 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.
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.
I know it might seem like a case of “easier said than done!”. But there are some special techniques to help you handle your worries.
The brain in ‘doing’ mode
The 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 do my relationships always turn out badly?
These types of emotional issues just don’t lend themselves to an analytically based ‘doing’ approach.
Put your brain in the ‘being’ mode
Mindfulness 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. And they aren’t always 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.
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.
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 downward spiral of increasing worry, anxiety and stress keeping you awake at night.
It can take some time and patience to really feel the difference. Don’t let that stop you though: the rewards are worth the effort, and many people will see some benefits right from the start.
There 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
- Lie on your back with your arms relaxed by your sides. Take a moment to get comfortable, knees up or down as you please.
- Bring your awareness to your breathing.
- 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’ with each exhale.
- 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 eventually.
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
The 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 journey 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.
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.
An interesting article in the Harvard Gazette in 2018 discusses research into mindfulness at length. It’s a long read, but gives a good insight into the work of Gaëlle Desbordes, a neuroscientist who has shown through functional magnetic resonance imaging (brain scans) that meditation has a direct effect on the brain.
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.
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:
- 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.
Like 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 audio guided meditations, which I still sometimes use. You can find it, and other mindfulness books, online or in bookstores.
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:
- Be Mindful – sponsored by the UK Mental Health Foundation
- MBSR online – from the Universities of California, Los Angeles
- Palouse mindfulness – a free online course
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.
F) Short online mindfulness exercises
As the popularity of mindfulness grows, so does the number of websites that have free guided meditations. This is a good stepping stone if you want to learn more and try some exercises, but perhaps don’t want to embark on an entire course yet.
If you search on Youtube, you’ll find many different ones. However, one source that I personally like is the Harvard University Wellness website, where they have several guided meditations that are short and well made.
Taking a holistic approach
Mindfulness 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.
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.