People have been using meditation for thousands of years for spiritual practice or to achieve enlightenment. In more recent years, meditation is used to ease stress and anxiety and promote feelings of peacefulness and wellbeing. Not surprisingly, meditation can also improve sleep.
There are several ways to meditate. The most commonly practiced form in the West is mindfulness meditation. It focuses on being aware of your body sensations, thoughts, and surroundings. Mindfulness originates from ancient eastern and Buddhist philosophy and dates back some 2,500 years. Scientist, author, and creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Jon Kabat-Zinn is credited with bringing the technique to the United States in the late 1970s and creating somewhat of a mindfulness movement.
One reason mindfulness meditation is so popular is because it is uncomplicated. You don’t need a teacher to guide you through the process or learn any special techniques. All you need to be successful is to open your mind and become aware of the world around and within you.
Mindfulness begins with becoming aware of your body sensations and your surroundings. “It’s is paying attention on purpose, in the present moment non-judgmentally,” explains Holly Schiff, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist with Jewish Family Services of Greenwich in Connecticut. “You are listening and watching what naturally exists, focusing on the here and now, while intentionally increasing awareness of experience.”
This can take some practice. Beginners may find that as they quiet themselves and become aware, their minds begin to drift away to obligations or worries. Don’t fight this, says Deepak Chopra, M.D., world-renowned speaker and author of numerous books on alternative medicine. He suggests not fighting these thoughts but rather, “just let go and flow.” In other words, being aware of your worries but not judging them. Rather, taking note of them and then steering your mind back to what you are sensing, feeling, and thinking.
This must be done without judgment or interpretation. “You are [instead] curious and objective about the experience,” Schiff says. “It helps you to focus on the here and now while intentionally increasing your awareness of what is unfolding moment to moment in your experience.” As you become more acutely aware, you enter a state of mindfulness — which is where the real benefits come.
Researchers are just beginning to understand just how meditation works and how it affects the brain. But psychologists believe achieving a state of mindfulness influences different pathways in the brain associated with the regulation of attention and emotion. Studies show that those who engage in mind-based practices are less likely to reactive adversely to negative thoughts or emotions when in stressful situations.
Numerous studies have also shown that meditation and mindfulness can reduce pain, improve blood circulation, temper bouts of restless leg syndrome, lower blood pressure, and relieve many stress-related conditions like anxiety and depression. According to recent surveys by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, relieving these symptoms can further reduce sleep problems such as insomnia.
What are the benefits of practicing mindfulness on sleep?
Mindfulness “reduces stress, helps alleviate and decrease anxiety, and enhances one’s self-awareness and ability to be mindful in the moment,” Schiff says. “It has proven quite useful in the treatment of my patients with anxiety, depression, and OCD.” Less stress and anxiety, and fewer intrusive thoughts can translate into much better sleep, according to recent surveys by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.
A 2012 systematic review and meta-analysis on the effects of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences found mindful meditation significantly improved sleep quality in study participants. That finding was backed up in a May 2020 study published in the journal Sleep which evaluated mindfulness-based practices in adults 50 years of age and older with insomnia. Researchers found that participants who practiced mindfulness were able to fall asleep faster at night, stay asleep longer, and experience overall improved quality of sleep.
Finally, another study, published in the journal Frontiers in Neurology, concluded, “It is evident from the literature cited that practice of meditation brings about … alterations in physiological functions [that] have great similarities to the changes that are happening during sleep. Thus, meditation practices, as an auto-regulatory integrated global phenomenon, opens a wider scope for understanding the unique aspects of human sleep and consciousness.”
Mattress Nerd wanted to know just how much mindfulness meditation improved the sleep of our readers. So, we conducted a mindfulness and sleep study among 2,000 Americans. We asked those who practiced mindfulness if their sleep or stress levels improved since starting. Here’s what they had to say:
- Nearly three-quarters (74%) of respondents reported better quality sleep from practicing mindfulness
- 70% of those who practiced mindfulness at least once a day reported having decreased anxiety levels
- 69% of those who practiced mindfulness at least once a day reported that it was easy for them to relax
- Over half of the people who practiced mindfulness reported being able to fall asleep within 30 minutes
How to practice mindfulness for better sleep
Mindfulness isn’t difficult to achieve, but it does take some patience. “When first starting mindfulness, you might have a hard time and might even get frustrated,” she says. “It is something that takes a little bit of time and practice, but with consistency, you will start to feel the beneficial effects.”
Here are some tips on how to be successful and mindfulness meditation:
- Experiment with different positions. “Sitting is the most popular position to use while meditating,” Schiff says. But you can also practice mindfulness while lying down, walking, or engaging in a focused activity like dancing or gardening.
- Remove distractions. Before starting, unplug your phone, turn off the TV, and put away the laptop. When you meditate, all your attention should be toward your own thoughts and sensations, and not on obligations or incoming text messages.
- Set a timer. If you’re feeling stressed but only have a few minutes to meditate, set an alarm to rouse you when time is up. You’ll still reap the benefits of mindfulness even for a limited amount of time.
- Download a meditation app. “Use guided meditation audios and apps to help you focus on an object or on your breath while you are observing bodily sensations, thoughts, and feelings,” Schiff says.
There are several different mindfulness techniques. Here are a few you may wish to try:
- Breathe. There are several different breathing techniques that you can use while entering a state of awareness. For example, you can simply count each of your breaths to help with focus. Or inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 7 seconds, and exhale for 8 seconds to reduce anxiety and promote relaxation.
- Scan your body. Also called progressive relaxation to reduce body tension, body scanning involves focusing on tensing and then relaxing one muscle group at a time until the entire body is relaxed and calm.
- Envision the rainbow. “There’s a color mindfulness exercise where you focus on color and thought,” Schiff says. “You pick a color of the rainbow, set a timer and try to think of as many items as possible that are the color you chose. Mindfulness can improve your ability to truly focus and pay attention to one thing at a time.”
Mindfulness meditation is a relatively simple but hugely rewarding practice that anyone can do. But it does take patience. “It is like learning another language, so keep reminding yourself that it requires practice,” Schiff says. “Mindfulness forces you to slow down, do one thing at a time, and notice all the nuances of movement,” she adds. “Use all of your senses to really feel what it is that you’re doing instead of multi-tasking and losing the experience of the present moment.”
Taking time to become aware of your body and your surroundings can have far-reaching benefits. It can improve your overall health and wellbeing, and ultimately improve your sleep.