In the US we place a high value on things like energy and productivity. While it is important to be alert and active during the day, we tend to view any rest, relaxation, and sleep as a weakness.
Not only is this counterintuitive to our need to be our best during the day, but it also has really dangerous side effects. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly one-third of Americans aren’t getting enough sleep, and that puts them at risk for obesity, depression, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.
Rest and relaxation are more than what you get on your once-a-year beach vacation. The right amount of winding down and sleep time are essential for your overall health.
So if you’re one of those three of Americans getting under 7 hours of sleep a night, you may need a new nighttime routine – one that involves a relaxation technique people have been doing for centuries.
The practice of mindfulness meditation helps sleep-deprived folks turn their attention to the present moment. By observing and acknowledging sensations, feelings, and thoughts, you’re able to set aside your frustration at Janice in accounting, or momentarily forget your long list of errands for the morning. This practice reminds you that we are more than our thoughts and emotions.
Even though Buddhists have been doing this for over 2,000 years, the western world has only really caught onto meditation in the last 15 years. By letting go of thoughts and feelings as just that – thoughts and feelings – you can let go of the anxieties of every day and get some sleep.
Scientific Studies on Meditation
Studies of meditation's effects on sleep began in the 1970s when Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard University noted that meditation triggers a “relaxation response.” This is a deep psychological shift in the body that’s the complete opposite of the stress response. It’s characterized by decreased oxygen consumption, increased exhaled nitric oxide, and reduced psychological distress. Benson discovered that this meditative response helped in reducing the impact of depression, anxiety, and insomnia.
Other studies have taken this conclusion further. A study by JAMA Internal Medicine examined a group of 49 men who experienced trouble sleeping. Half of them completed a mindfulness-awareness program where they learned meditation and other exercises designed to help them focus. The other attended a sleep education class with tips on improving sleep. After six weeks, those in the mindfulness group had less insomnia, fatigue, and depression.
Another study found that those who practice transcendental meditation for years spent more time in the slow-wave sleep stage of the sleep cycle. This is important as slow-wave sleep is the deepest, most restorative stage of the night. This is important because as we age we are known to lose time in the slow-wave sleep cycle. Those who practice meditation retain younger sleep patterns, therefore experiencing better overall sleep. I’m not saying meditation will make you younger, but it kind of looks that way, doesn’t it?
Both transcendental and mindfulness meditation practices also appeared to increase and enhance the number of REM sleep states during the night – a clear indicator of greater sleep quality.
On a more cellular level, meditation has been proven to enhance the production of serotonin and melatonin – important chemicals for falling asleep.
But what about those with more than just a period of stress keeping them from sleeping? Those who suffer from chronic insomnia are struggling with more than a few nights of tossing and turning. Luckily, studies have shown insomnia sufferers between 25 and 49 years old reported improvements in things like sleep latency, total sleep time, total wake time, sleep efficiency, sleep quality, and depression.
Many Paths to Mindful
There are several types of meditation to incorporate into your nighttime routine. Keep in mind that the less brain effort a meditation requires, the more likely it is to promote sleep. All of these can be done in bed as you relax and unwind for the night.
Remember, before you begin meditating you should ensure your bedroom is a haven of rest and relaxation. Dim the lights, put away the phone and make sure you’re lying on a mattress that’s right for the way you sleep. Consider factors like support, materials, and firmness. Then, cozy up and let the meditation begin.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
PMR is essentially the practice of focusing your mind on a specific muscle group and relaxing it completely. Sleep-depriving emotions tend to live in our muscles. Ever have someone mention they carry all their tension in their shoulders? Well, we all carry it somewhere. So things like massages and PMR help alleviate that. By scanning and relaxing your body muscle by muscle, you’ll have a calming effect on your emotions. First, you completely tense up the body, then work from your toes up to your head by intentionally relaxing muscle groups while breathing deeply.
This targeted practice helps you alleviate stresses you didn’t even know you had, and it can be time efficient, too. PMR can last anywhere from one to 20 minutes – all while lying in bed.
The foundation of all meditation is your breathing. This practice requires you to pay attention to your breath and only your breath. When your thoughts wander you bring your focus back to your simple breathing. This is the most basic of mindfulness meditation, and also the most difficult. Even long-time practitioners have trouble with it, so be kind to yourself if breathing meditation isn’t the right practice for you.
Turns out there’s some merit to the old tip of counting sheep. The entire idea of meditation is to shut out distractions and lull yourself to sleep. Counting is a reliable and easy way to get to that relaxed state of mind. “As you focus, your attention withdraws from the addictive stream of thought, conclusions, and opinions that your mind is usually fixed on,” says meditation teacher and co-founder of AboutMeditation.com, Morgan Dix. By practicing bringing your mind back to your count, your brain is learning mindfulness.
If you really need help keeping your mind in one place, you can turn to a guided meditation. Counting exercises, breathing meditation, a PMR, or any other mindfulness exercise can be found in a guided format. You can remain completely passive while a trained practitioner or psychologist walks you through the exercise. There are plenty of guided meditations available online in videos, podcasts, apps, and more.
No matter which path you choose, know that any form of mindful practice added to your wind-down routine is going to help you fall into a night of quality sleep – preparing you for another productive day.
Looking for even more ways to find lasting relaxation in the midst of daily challenges? Why not go on a restorative yoga retreat? You'll come back with more relaxation skills and fresh forces.