Mindfully Seeking Shut-Eye

October 8th, 2015 by

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Sleep. It’s one of the most important and least prioritized components of health and happiness. It contributes to our overall well-being in enormous ways, from hormone balance and job performance to the foods we choose and whether or not we feel motivated to exercise. Getting enough sleep has numerous benefits including increased longevity, improved mood, better overall health, and a general feeling of contentment and satisfaction with life, to name a few.

We all need deep sleep. Those who have gone without it for extended periods (like new parents and people with insomnia or other sleep disorders) can attest to the fact that sleep deprivation can make daily life feel like unmanageable drudgery. In fact, not getting enough hours of sleep, or failing to get deep sleep and complete sleep cycles at night, can lead to a multitude of physical and psychological issues.

The Connection Between Stress, the Mind, and Sleep

People suffering from sleep disorders may benefit from better “sleep hygiene”, with a nightly routine of relaxing and unwinding, going to bed at the same time each night, and avoiding bright screens, exercise, and stimulating activities before bedtime. However, chemical and hormonal imbalances resulting from long periods of unmanaged stress are often behind insomnia disorders. A number of research studies on mindfulness training for sleep-challenged adults have demonstrated a significant link.

A recent study at the University of Southern California and UCLA found that mindfulness meditation training is more effective for sleep-challenged adults than sleep hygiene education. “We were surprised to find that the effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality was large and above and beyond the effect of the sleep hygiene education program,” said David S. Black, PhD, MPH, author of the study and assistant professor of preventive medicine at USC and Director of the American Mindfulness Research Association (goAMRA.org).

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults aged 26-64 get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. People who regularly practice some form of mindfulness meditation are likely to enjoy more sleep and better quality sleep. Mindfulness practices soothe the nervous system and ease mental patterns associated with stress. Mindfulness practitioners learn to let go of their thoughts about the day before bedtime. As Black notes, “Before going to bed, people who can’t sleep worry a lot, and they start ruminating about not being able to sleep.” Mindfulness practitioners are better able to notice these thoughts and set them aside without chasing them or elaborating and creating more stress and wakefulness.

A Mindfulness Routine for Getting a Nourishing Night’s Sleep

In addition to dimming the lights one hour before bedtime, and putting away anything with a screen – tablet, phone, computer, or TV. (The light causes wakefulness), Shelby Freedman Harris, Psy.D., C.BSM, clinical psychologist and director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, suggests a mindfulness practice known as the “Body Scan” ten minutes before bedtime. Sit in a comfortable chair and bring your attention to the top of your head, or to your toes, and progressively bring your attention to each part of your body, noticing whatever sensations you become aware of. Gradually move your attention through your entire body. When your mind drifts into thinking (which it will), the practice is to simply notice this (without judging yourself) and then gently escort your attention back to noticing sensations in the body. It doesn’t matter how many times the mind wanders away: Each time you bring your attention back to the body you’re strengthening the mindfulness muscle. Spend about 5 minutes on this practice. Then, get in bed and rest your attention on the sensations of your breath. If you are unable to fall asleep, get up, sit in the comfortable chair again and repeat the Body Scan. Don’t get back into bed until you feel sleepy—and don’t sleep in the chair!

Whether you’re getting sufficient shut-eye or not, mindfulness practice can help prevent sleep disturbances and maintain healthy sleep patterns. Sleep well!

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