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The quality of our sleep creates a ripple effect that rises with dawn and impacts the day ahead of us. When we have not been able to fall asleep, or have risen in the middle of the night with racing thoughts, it is impossible for us to have gotten the rest we need – both physically and mentally. The experience of insomnia, or of poor sleep quality in general, is rising, with modern day stressors captivating our minds into hours that are traditionally reserved for rest and rejuvenation. Even when the lights go off, it is hard to find that deep sense of peace and release that carries us into a restful slumber.
Reaching a state of deep sleep is crucial for our overall sense of wellbeing. Sleep offers us the chance to reset and restore our energy systems. Our physiology thrives when we have slept well as sleep impacts everything from hormones to emotions to energy levels. Research has shown that proper sleep can help us to regulate our emotions and reduces our tendency for reactivity.
A variety of factors can keep us up at night, or make it difficult for us to fall asleep. Insomnia or some lesser form of such an experience can be brought about by:
Sleep issues are a daily concern for many; for others, the experience of sleepless nights crops up during periods of acute stress. Whether short-term or chronic, stress impacts our ability to let go, to surrender, and to ultimately reach a state of deep sleep. However, as we expand our own capacity for mindfulness, we find that the quality of our sleep improves alongside our practice.
Mindfulness practice helps us to be exactly where we are. Of course we are always exactly where we are, but we often don’t recognize it. With distractions and stimulation ever-present in the modern world, the body may be in one place while the mind is in another. Mindfulness practice helps us to come back down to the present moment, offering us a chance to completely let go when we are within the initiatory stages of sleep.
There are numerous ways that mindfulness promotes sleep. It can help us to rest deeply by:
Mindfulness reconnects us to the breath, a necessity for easing the experience of stress and anxiety. When we struggle to fall asleep, stress is often a primary or contributing cause. When we are stressed or anxious, we often breathe quite shallowly, unconsciously restricting each inhalation from expanding into the entirety of the lungs. This shallow breathing engages our fight-or-flight response – the defensive side of our nervous system that is responsible for protecting us in moments of danger.
While the fight-or-flight response is a crucial survival mechanism in times of imminent threat, it is often stuck on overdrive due to an overactive mind. When the mind is in high gear, the body cannot differentiate between what threats are real and imminent and which ones are perceived and remote. If the mind signals that there is a reason to be afraid, the body reacts by secreting various hormones, such as cortisol, to help defend us against whatever we are facing.
Unless we are in a position to respond to whatever is causing us discomfort, this fight-or-flight mode and the cocktail of chemicals it secretes only fuels the state of inner fear and panic. We begin to breathe more shallowly, feeding into the belief that there is danger ahead.
Mindfulness increases our awareness of the breath, often guiding us to observe the rhythm and depth of the breath’s flow. As we become more aware of the body and its life force in this way, we often find that the breath naturally deepens. We can also consciously draw the breath into the belly if we notice that it is shallow. In either case, as the breath descends further into the body, the relaxation response is initiated.
Benefits of the relaxation response include:
All of these benefits help to further promote a sense of relaxation within the body, carrying us further into a sense of ease, and eventually, to place of complete surrender.
Our ability to navigate stress also helps us to achieve a better night’s sleep by regulating our hormones. One of our main neuroendocrine systems is the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, otherwise known as the HPA axis. When activated, this system sparks within us the experience of wakefulness, and research has found that stress-related insomnia activates the HPA axis. In this way, stress keeps us up at all hours – at times when what we need most is rest and release. As we learn to navigate the stressors that hover in either the background or foreground of the mind, we become better equipped to mitigate the physiological effects that stress has on the body by guiding the mind back to the present moment.
There are a variety of mindfulness techniques we can use to bring about a greater sense of peace and stillness as we prepare for sleep. Implement any of the following practices into your nighttime routine, guiding yourself through these techniques (or using online supports) to help bring about a calm and tranquil state that is conducive to sleep.
Before you begin, allow yourself to come to a comfortable lying down position, supporting yourself in any way that is needed. Ensure that the neck is aligned with the spine and that the shoulders are relaxed. Consciously release any constriction in the stomach, the chest, the jaw, and the muscles around the eyes. By mindfully letting go in this way, we set the stage for relaxation to effortlessly come over us.
Body scan meditations help to draw your energy away from the mind and into the body, grounding you in the present moment. It is a compassionate, heart-centered practice that facilitates the release of anxiety and rumination.
When we ground ourselves into the present moment by exploring our connectedness to the physical space we are in, we begin to let go of rampant thought waves attached to the past or future. We gain a greater understanding for what it means to be “right here, right now.” By following this grounding practice, we begin to feel a greater sense of contentment, connection, and safety.
Since deep breathing activates the relaxation response, it is an effective tool for setting the stage for a deep and restorative sleep. Allow your breath to be your primary focus throughout this practice.
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