Using Mindfulness to Overcome Insomnia
Over the next few weekends, Welldoing is going to be running extracts from founder of the Sleep School, Dr Guy Meadows' The Sleep Book: How to Sleep Well Every Night. Using this excellent book, we are going to share some great tips and exercises to help you overcome insomnia with mindfulness:
The first step to accepting your insomnia is to be able to notice yourself struggling in the first place. What you don't see you can't begin to let go of. This may sound obvious, but it is all too easy to fall into a pattern of mindless thinking, where we are completely unaware of things going on around us or our own behaviour. At a basic level such mindlessness is relatively harmless and is what happens when you daydream.
However, during times of stress, such as when you can't sleep, a lack of awareness of what is going on in the moment can keep you struggling when you don't even know you're doing it. You can spend your day either locked in worry about how little sleep you've had or imagining how bad tomorrow will be if you don't sleep. Night after night is spent trying to work out how to fix your insomnia, and of course this over-thinking literally keeps you awake. Is this how it is for you?
The good news is that you already possess all of the tools you need to be able to see yourself pulling on the rope and choose to let go.
Research has shown that mindfulness can be an effective tool to help overcome chronic insomnia. Regular practice was shown to significantly increase the amount of hours spent sleeping, reduce the time taken to fall to sleep and increase your sleep efficiency, which is the percentage of time spent in bed actually sleeping. It also improves individual self-recorded insomnia severity scores.
It's believed that this is because mindfulness helps insomniacs to reduce hyper-arousal levels by enabling them to view the arrival of unhelpful thoughts and painful emotions in a less reactive manner, thereby creating more conducive conditions for natural sleep to emerge. Additional research also showed that 8 weeks of mindfulness training in meditation-naïve participants was associated with anatomical changes in the brain regions involved in emotional and cognitive regulation.
A few things to bear in mind:
- Mindfulness is not designed to get you to sleep. When you practise being mindful, it is natural for your mind and body to slow down as you choose to notice everything that is going on moment by moment. This may make you feel relaxed and even sleepy, and you may notice yourself having the urge to yawn for the first time in a while! Though this is obviously a nice thing to happen, it is important to remember that it is not the aim of mindfulness and using it to control sleep will only push it further away.
- Mind-wandering is allowed. Mindfulness is not about having a blank mind. It is perfectly normal for your mind to wander off onto a thought, memory or some other distraction during your practice. If this happens, then gently say, 'Thank you, Mind,' and then return your attention back to whatever you were noticing. It does not matter how many times your mind wanders; what does matter is that you notice when it wanders and that you choose to bring it back.
- The time is now. Aim to practise several times a day. It is possible to practise whenever and wherever you like. You could be walking to work, sitting on a park bench, queuing at the supermarket, cooking dinner or even lying in bed. Simply take the time to notice what you can in that moment.
Exercise 1: Noticing Your Senses
The aim here is to tune in to your senses as they occur moment by moment.
- To start, find a comfortable place to sit down or stand, close your eyes and take a moment to get settled.
- When you are ready, gently bring your awareness onto your senses, such as what you can hear, feel, smell, taste or, if your eyes are open, what you can see right now in your environment. Simply list everything that you notice either out loud or in your head. For example, 'I can hear a bird,' or, 'I can feel the chair against my back.'
- Spend about ten seconds focusing on each sense before moving on to the next. If you can't sense something, as for instance there is nothing to smell, then simply report that fact and move on to another sense.
- If you mind wanders off onto a thought, which it probably will, thank it for the distraction and return your awareness back to noticing your senses.
When to Use?
This exerise can be used anytime and anywhere, day or night – the more practice the better! You can be walking down the street, sat at home or even lying in bed at night. You can do it with your eyes closed or open, and if you fancy a challenge, see if you can notice at least three of each sense before moving on to the next.