Today I thought I would address one of the most common reasons people seek out meditation and mindfulness: poor sleep. In this post, I touch on everything meditation and sleep: how meditation can slow the nervous system, how rest can be a choice we have power over, and routines and habits (like meditation) contribute to the innate ability to relax and get better sleep. In my meditation studio alone, I practice with plenty of individuals who suffer from poor sleep, and in my teaching experience meditation and mindfulness when regularly committed to, can make a wonderful impact on improving our sleep.
Busy minds and sleep
Step to take: ask yourself how good is your sleep?
You’ve probably guessed this one already, we notice our minds ticking over, and thoughts racing when we’re tussling at night trying to fall asleep. Research also shows that stress and sleep have a reciprocal relationship, it’s called the Sleep-Stress Cycle. Basically, as I understand it, high stress contributes to poor sleep, and poor sleep contributes to higher stress levels; the two feed into each other in a loop. Four stages of the Sleep-Stress cycle:
- feeling stressed
- having hormone imbalances
- can’t switch off
Each of these can cause poor sleep. Sleep research says this is due to chronic stress dysregulating our internal body clock, as well as being linked to higher cortisol in the evenings, making it hard to fall asleep.
You can set goals around your sleep, making it simpler to improve your sense of rest. 6 common questions suggested to measure sleep quality are:
How long does it take me to fall asleep?
How many times to I wake at night?
How many hours of sleep do I get each night?
How deeply do I feel I sleep?
Do I feel rested when I wake up in the morning?
Do I feel energised and ready for my day?
Learn more about Sleep-Stress cycle here.
Empowered to sleep well
Research on meditation and sleep appears to have started in the late 90s, all centred around empowering individuals to access their relaxation response, or rest state at will. Most of the research focuses on Transcendental or Buddhist meditation, the 2 most popular forms in the west.
“Relaxation response – a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress.”Coined by Dr Herbert Benson in 1970s.
Here’s a snapshot of some studies:
- 75% of insomniacs who meditated fell asleep quicker.
- 60% of people reduced anxiety after meditating.
- 91% of insomniacs reduced or eliminated their use of sleeping medication.
- Senior meditators spent more time in deep sleep with higher activity of brainwaves that promote calmness, rest, and contentment, as well as muscle relaxation.
The trials looking at novice meditators showed mixed success due to wavering commitment of participants, and less success when meditating alone. This indicates, to me, the importance of community and encouragement found in regular group meditation!
Relaxation as a reflex
Step to take: practice rest and relaxation in waking hours, regularly
“The idea is to create a reflex to more easily bring forth a sense of relaxation. That way, it’s easier to evoke the relaxation response at night when you can’t sleep.”Dr Herbert Benson
If we want a good night’s sleep, research shows that we then need to be in a rest state. And, deeper rest comes from knowing how to rest on command, and relax at will. When we have heightened stress, and live mostly in a stress state or fight-or-flight state.
“Fight-or-flight response (stress response) – a quick and unconscious neurological response to a perceived threat that stimulates defensive behaviour.”Coined by Walter Bradford Cannon in 1910s.
In fight-or-flight, we experience physiological changes that can make it hard to sleep. Such as:
- Muscle Tension: making it hard to relax the body.
- Elevated Heart Rate: which means rapid breathing, the opposite state of deep sleep.
- Digestive System Effects: stress affects digestion, causing discomfort when trying to sleep.
Still-mind meditation for sleep
So, to break the stress-sleep cycle and get better sleep, we can learn to manage our stress, and control our relaxation response. Here are some applications of meditation to experience deep rest:
- Body Scan Meditations and Yoga Nidra. (Listen to my guided body scan here.)
- Breathing meditations to control the heart rate. (Watch my guided breathing meditation here.)
- Visualisation to ease tension and upsets in the stomach – typically it is the effect of chronic stress that we are targeting with our meditation practice (and a visualisation is a common one for deepest relaxation) which can ease chronic stress and therefore its effects on digestion.
Now we come to my own tradition: Still-mind meditation can be defined as awareness or consciousness without thoughts. Meditation, all traditions, rise out of a need in the person or community for something other-than their present experience, whether that be great poverty, war, personal difficulty.
Still-mind meditation means to train the person to be able to readily enter a state of no-thoughts, peace, stillness. This comes back to our definition of the relaxation response, and being able to access relaxation as a choice being integral to sleeping and living well. We have 3 elements of the Still-mind practice:
Self-inquiry, to understand ourselves and others objectively, and with depth and realism. (Watch my self-inquiry for anxiety here.)
Regular stillness meditation practice to train our brains into the relaxation response or stillness state.
Unconditional love, to unlock and wake up our hearts from dormancy and numbness into feeling and guiding us.
Finally… there is a deeper need being spoken when there is trouble sleeping, and I’m not saying it’s easy or you should tolerate lack of sleep. But rather, making changes in our lives to allow for deeper rest, and asking questions around our sleep in this deeper way.
And the biggest, more faith-based part of our humanness, shows us that we should reach out to others, lean on others, ask for help when we need it. And practice meditation to develop an inner peace above it all.
“The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.Breeze at Dawn by Rumi, translated by Coleman Barks.
Don’t go back to sleep.”
Wishing you peace and mental strength on your path, and don’t forget to share this blog post if it helped you in any way or you know someone who would benefit from it!
(Photo by Iva Rajovic)