How calming your mind can lead to a better night’s sleep
4 minute read
Can practicing mindfulness really help you sleep better? Well, mindfulness techniques help to instil calm throughout your daily life, training your mind to switch off from its tendency to ruminate and be anxious. This, in turn, makes us more effective at “letting go” of the day when it’s time for bed.
As you learn to quieten the mind with mindfulness, you activate the relaxation response. Evidence shows mindfulness meditation boosts serotonin, reduces heart rate, lowers blood pressure and activates the parts of the brain that control sleep. It also increases melatonin, which is the sleep hormone! So, even on a purely physiological level, it is contributing to a more restful state at night.
What does mindfulness involve?
Here is one simple definition of mindfulness: intentionally focusing your mind on the present moment.
We hear the phrase ‘mindfulness meditation’ quite a lot and there can be confusion around its various techniques, from guided meditations to body scan meditations. Really, they’re different sides of the same coin.
To help you start developing a daily mindfulness practice, there’s a range of apps you can use with meditation sessions that give you quick exercises which can be as short as one minute.
Are mindfulness and meditation the same thing? Well, mindfulness doesn’t have to be “traditional” meditation. You can even eat mindfully. So, you take the piece of fruit and look at it. Take in the colour and texture, then put it in your mouth. Become aware of its texture on your tongue and its taste. That’s an example of how mindful eating puts you in the “here and now”, fully connected to what is actually happening.
This kind of deliberate practice will allow you to tap into that same mindset if you find yourself ruminating at bedtime.
How does mindfulness go beyond simply “unwinding”?
The difference between a “mindful” approach and other relaxation techniques is that, with mindfulness, you are not reliant on relaxing. It is an attention exercise that may have relaxation as a pleasant side effect.
When you set out with the primary purpose of relaxing, it can lead to frustration and further anxiety if it does not have the immediate desired effect. This, in turn, can be counterproductive and serve to compound sleep problems.
In contrast, mindfulness can separate you from the self-judgement and anxieties around sleep.
What technique is effective for winding down?
This short mindful breathing exercise only takes five minutes. It should help you become more present and prevent you from trying to force sleep. It also encourages slower breathing, which aids quality sleep.
Sit down or lie down, whatever helps you relax. Your eyes can be open or closed, but sometimes closing them can assist focus. Inhale deeply to get started and calm yourself: deep breath through the nostrils for four seconds, hold the breath for four seconds, exhale through the mouth for four seconds and hold for four seconds – this is called square breathing.
From there, breathe in through your nose and focus on the air going through it. Feel it. Be aware of it. Breathe deeply into the tummy. Hold it and exhale back out. Bring your whole mind and focus onto the breath.
The great thing is you can do also this anywhere, at any time. You always have your breath with you.
How can mindfulness help at bedtime?
We’re often told that our bedrooms should be a “sanctuary” for sleep alone. That isn’t always possible, particularly for people working from home. Mindfulness can help you change your frame of mind in the same space. It disconnects you from the busy energy of the day and helps create a calmer environment so you can shift emotionally when you go to sleep.
If you still haven’t nodded off after 20 minutes or so of being in bed, you can get up and do something. Make it boring, then go back to bed again. Just make sure you don’t cook a meal or stick on a nice movie you’re going to enjoy! As well as these mindful activities, you can simply move to a chair within the bedroom and practice your meditation. Add some nice, relaxing sleeping music if it helps. What’s important is that you are getting out of the bed and consciously starting again. It can feel counterintuitive but it’s a surprisingly effective mindful strategy.
Remember: don’t be too hard on yourself
That’s true when it comes to both trying to sleep and practicing mindfulness. It is important not to catastrophise poor sleep – but if you do feel you have a significant issue, checking in with your GP might put your mind at ease.
Any few seconds you get where you are truly mindful is an achievement! In this way, patience and practice will get you to a calmer, more restful place. There’s no real right or wrong way to do it. The act of spending time focusing on the present is the whole point and will stand to you when it comes to sleep.
This content is for information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek advice from your GP or an appropriate medical professional if you have concerns about your health, or before commencing a new healthcare regime. If you believe that you are experiencing a medical emergency call 999 / 112 or seek emergency assistance immediately.
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Vhi Health Coach
Registered Mental Health Nurse, Cognitive Behavioural Psychotherapist, Psychologist and Adjunct Teaching Fellow at Trinity College Dublin