This is the last of our extracts from Dr Guy Meadows' fantastic work The Sleep Book: How to Sleep Well Every Night on using mindfulness to overcome insomnia. The Sleep School also run workshops, find out more.

Noticing Your Sensations and Urges

Every moment of every day your body sends you millions of messages in the form of emotions, sensations and urges about your state of well-being. Whether it is the beat of your heart, the twitch of your muscles or the sensation of feeling hungry, tired, excited or sad, they are all part of the human experience. They provide you with a real-time feed as to what is going on in your body and guide you as to the best way to act in that moment. For example, if we notice we’re feeling full while eating, then most of us stop. Sadly many of us have forgotten how to listen to these feelings or choose to block them out in the hope they will go away, only to have them worsen over time. Sleepless nights can be filled with many unwanted bodily sensations, which is why so many insomniacs go to extreme lengths to avoid sensations they find scary or uncomfortable. Consuming alcohol or drugs can offer short-term peace, but more often than not the sensations come back stronger and shout even louder to get your attention. In the end it can feel like you are at war with your own body. Being willing to listen to, own and make space for your sensations and urges in the moment and recognising that they can’t hurt you is a key aspect of being mindful.

Exercise: Noticing Sensations and Urges

  • Find a quiet place to sit, stand or lie and gently close your eyes or direct your gaze ahead of you. For about 10 to 30 seconds notice the sensation of contact between your body and whatever you are sitting, standing or lying on.
  • Move your awareness into your body and take notice of any of the emotions, physical sensations or urges that exist there. Start at your toes and very slowly scan upwards throughout the whole of your body (both sides) until you reach the top of your head. So bring your awareness to your toes, feet, ankles, lower and upper legs, pelvis, abdomen, chest, hands, lower and upper arms, neck and finally your head.
  • Spend 10 to 30 seconds on scanning each area, noticing anything there is to notice, such as a muscle twitch, the beat of your heart, the flutter of your eyelids, butterflies in your tummy, a tightness in your chest, feelings of anxiety or frustration or the urge to move your body or even nothing. Doing this for five to ten minutes is a good length of time, but it can be done for shorter or longer periods.
  • This is a lovely opportunity to really get to know your body and tap into the life that flows through it. Notice any urges to fight or avoid certain feelings that show up. Be open to welcoming what you notice in an accepting manner even if you don’t like it or it feels uncomfortable: ‘Hello, Racing Heart’ or ‘Come on in, Anxious Feelings’ or ‘Thank you, Urge to Move.’
  • If unhelpful thoughts arrive to try and convince you to avoid experiencing particular sensations, then notice these as well, welcome them and then gently return your attention back to the area you were focused on.

When to Use?

This tool can be done on its own or along with noticing your senses and your breath. At first it can be helpful to scan your bodily sensations in a quiet, relaxing and safe environment. As you become more practised, you can do it anywhere you feel comfortable closing your eyes. Such situations can strengthen the versatility of your practice rather than only being able to be mindful at home when it is calm and quiet. It can also be useful at night if you are awake.