Mindfulness Exercises For Sleep & Relaxation

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Mindfulness For Sleep

The Necessity of a Good Night’s Sleep

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:

  • Anxiety, stress, and fear,
  • Repetitive thinking and ruminating,
  • Technology usage and light pollution,
  • Imbalanced hormones,
  • Dietary factors, such as caffeine, sugar, and alcohol,
  • Underlying medical conditions, and
  • Other personal, situational, and environmental factors.

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.

How Mindfulness Helps to Improve Sleep

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:

  • Quieting the mind, bringing repetitive thoughts to rest
  • Drawing awareness into the body and away from the past or future
  • Easing the physical body by relaxing the muscles
  • Reconnecting us to the needs and reality of the present moment
  • Slowing the breath and inducing the relaxation response
  • Creating a sense of connection, contentment, and safety

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:

  • Slower heart rate,
  • Lowered blood pressure,
  • Slow and steady breathing,
  • Muscular relaxation,
  • Emotional release,
  • Feelings of resilience, and
  • Increased blood flow throughout the body.

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.

Mindfulness Techniques for Sleep

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 Relaxation

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.

  • Begin by breathing into the heart space for a few breath cycles, setting the intention to embrace this practice with compassionate curiosity.
  • Once you have settled into the breath, draw your awareness to your feet, feeling into the physical, visceral sensations of this area of the body. Observe whatever is present without judgment, opening up to any physical sensations from a place of openness and compassion.
  • Slowly draw your awareness upwards throughout the body, noting any sensations that are present in each area that you pass. Hold your attention for a couple of breaths on each muscle group as you move. As you exhale, release any and all tightness, tension, or stress that you come across.
  • Compassionately observe each area of the body individually before holding your entire body in awareness. As you witness the entirety of your physical being, invite all muscles to relax, noticing the way the mind follows suit.
  • Continue to breathe mindfully, allowing your breath to anchor you in this practice until you fall asleep. 

Grounding Practice

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.

  • Begin by connecting with your breath, noticing the subtle sensations of each inhalation and exhalation. Notice the depth and rhythm of your breath, observing its nature with non-judgmental awareness.
  • Expand your field of awareness by tuning into the physical sensations of the body as it rests. Notice the way that the textures around you feel against your skin. Observe the way you are supported unconditionally by the physical world in this very moment.
  • Feel the body become heavier as you relax more completely, sinking further into the physical space that supports you. Continue to observe the stillness and the simplicity of this moment. In this very moment, your pure existence is in total harmony with the rest of the world.
  • Continue to breathe slowly and steadily, allowing your breath to anchor you in this present moment. Remain within the body, guiding the mind back into the present moment anytime it arises. 

Deep Breathing

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.

  • Begin simply by observing the natural rhythm of your breath. Notice the way it feels as it enters the body, and then observe any sensations present on exhalation. Invite the rest of the body to be entirely still, allowing only the breath to move you.
  • Draw your awareness to the stomach now. Since the breath has a tendency to follow one’s attention, you might observe the way it naturally begins to deepen. Continue to follow its flow, moving alongside both inhalation and exhalation.
  • Allow the belly to rise and fall as you breathe. Continue breathing into the full capacity of the lungs, perhaps noticing the way the mind quiets as you become more highly attuned with the present moment.
  • Liken your breath to soft waves, allowing it to ebb and flow inwards and out until finally you come to a state of deep release – that is, until you finally drift into a deep and transformative sleep.
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