If you have ever had a poor night’s sleep, you know just how important our hours of deep rest really are. Not getting enough good quality sleep can impact how we show up in the world. Our mood, our emotions, our work, and our relationships are all areas of life that are impacted by the quality of our hours spent in slumber.
Many people struggle trying to find a healthy and effective solution to their sleep issues. Mindfulness for sleep is one type of practice that costs nothing, can be practiced at any moment, and can support us in drifting off with greater ease. Mindfulness is a simple practice, but it’s power cannot be underestimated.
This comprehensive guide to mindfulness for sleep will explore just how powerful mindfulness sleep meditations really are, covering:
What Is Mindfulness?
Before we consider the power of mindfulness for sleep, it is helpful to understand what mindfulness is and is not. Simply defined, mindfulness is non-judgmental, moment-to-moment awareness. It is typically associated with meditation, which is any type of formal practice that uses a technique to train attention and awareness or to achieve a particular state of mind. Thus, mindfulness meditation is a formal practice of paying non-judgmental attention to our experience.
Though mindfulness is often associated with relaxation, it is not really about relaxation in and of itself. Typically, relaxation occurs as a side effect of mindfulness practice, but the focus is on noticing what our present moment experience is like – whether that be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
Many mindfulness sleep meditations blend mindfulness practice with other techniques for cultivating relaxation. However, it is helpful to note that since mindfulness itself can shift the way that we relate to or perceive our experience, it can – in and of itself – support the mind and body to relax. But how is this so?
How Mindfulness Can Help Us Sleep Better
To understand how mindfulness can support us in getting a better night’s sleep, we need to know what some of the barriers to sleep are. One of the best ways to improve sleep is to address the underlying issue where possible, which varies from person to person. Some of the reasons we might struggle with sleep quantity or quantity include:
For many, mindfulness is an effective technique for addressing some of the underlying factors contributing to sleep issues, such as anxiety, stress, and chronic pain. Mindfulness can also support sleep less directly by guiding us to shift unhealthy lifestyle habits overtime. As our lifestyle habits shift, we might find that so too do our sleep patterns.
To look at some of the more direct ways that mindfulness supports sleep, consider the following:
Mindfulness increases awareness and acceptance, which can lead to a decrease in rumination and psychological distress.
One study found that a potential mechanism of action to explain how mindfulness supports sleep is through its ability to increase awareness (observation) and acceptance (non-reaction). When experiencing symptoms of insomnia, mindfulness can help to shift our mental state to one that is more adaptive and accepting, which reduces psychological distress and may therefore improve sleep.
Mindfulness can reduce emotional reactivity.
If our sleep issues are related to mental health concerns and/or strong emotions, mindfulness may also be of support. Mindfulness can reduce emotional reactivity, which is believed to be another way that it is conducive for sleep. However, it’s important to note that since mindfulness increases our awareness of the present moment, emotions may feel stronger at first for new practitioners. Where trauma is present, it is helpful to work with a teacher in the beginning as you ease into the practice.
Mindful awareness can support those with chronic pain.
A study that looked at adults with rheumatoid arthritis discovered that mindful awareness and acceptance can improve daily pain experience and reduce stress reactivity. Another study found that a mindfulness-based intervention known as Flow Meditation was supportive in alleviating sleep issues in adults with fibromyalgia syndrome. Therefore, those with chronic pain that interrupts sleep may find mindfulness practice to be of benefit.
Mindfulness can ease the body’s stress response.
Furthermore, research has been conducted to understand how mindfulness impacts the stress response. Some studies have found that this practice helps to reduce cortisol levels, known as our ‘stress hormone’. It was also found that cortisol levels in long-term meditators decreased with length of experience. Elevated stress, or cortisol, can interrupt normal functioning of our hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis), which can disrupt our sleep. Keeping cortisol regulated is therefore crucial for healthy slumber.
“A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow.”
- Charlotte Brontë -
What Are Mindfulness Sleep Meditations?
One of the most common ways that people practice mindfulness for sleep is through mindfulness sleep meditations. These types of meditations typically have an extra focus on reducing stress and increasing inner peace. As mentioned, mindfulness is not about achieving a particular state, but mindfulness sleep meditations do (understandably) have an end-goal in mind: that is, a good night of slumber. This is why they also typically include more conscious practices of letting go and relaxing, whether that be active letting go of physical tension or releasing worried thoughts.
Mindfulness meditation for sleep often includes a combination of any number of the following practices:
This list is not exhaustive, and as you can see, there are mindfulness techniques included along with other styles of meditation. When working towards an end-goal of deep sleep, a variety of techniques can be helpful.
“There is a time for many words, and there is also a time for sleep.”
- Homer -
Before Bed: 3 Ways to Use Mindfulness to Sleep Better
Is mindfulness meditation for sleep the only way to use mindfulness to get a better night of rest? Not at all. Since mindfulness can be both formal and informal, there are many ways to practice it. Consider the following mindfulness exercises to consider before crawling into bed:
1. Mindful eating
For some people, the food consumed before bed has a negative impact on their quality of sleep. For instance, alcohol, caffeine, and sugar consumed before bed can keep us awake or wake us up sometime in the middle of the night., If you are unsure of whether eating habits are contributing to your sleep issues, increase mindfulness of what you eat and how it impacts your sleep by keeping a sleep journal. Each morning, write down what you ate or drank before bed and how you slept. Overtime, you might find a connection between what you eat and your slumber.
2. Mindful consuming
Furthermore, it’s helpful to note that what we consume is not just about food and drinks. Mindful consuming before bed is also about noticing the impact that certain activities have on our sleep quality. For instance, how well do we sleep if we spend thirty minutes reading before bed as compared to watching a late-night film? Screen time impacts melatonin production, our sleep hormone, which is why it can be helpful to increase mindfulness of what we consume through our eyes before crawling into bed.
3. Mindful stretching
Lastly, consider an evening practice of mindful stretching as a transition between wakefulness and sleep. Many of us spend a lot more time in our thinking mind than in our body, so what would it be like to just take five minutes before bed tuning into the body? Roll out a mat on the floor, take a seat or lie down, and observe if there are areas of your body calling for your attention. Stretch as you intuitively feel called to and notice how this impacts both body and mind as you transition into slumber.
9 Mindfulness Exercises for Sleep
In addition to the three mindful practices offered above, there are many guided practices we can use to sleep better. Explore a variety of these practices as you feel called to, noting that some may work better for you than others. Bookmark what works so that you can come back to it at another time as needed.
This mindfulness for sleep practice harnesses focused attention to calm the mind and ease the body. It is a practice of counting out each breath, from 1 to 10, to help settle before falling sleep.
If you notice that there are distracting thoughts making it difficult to rest peacefully at the end of the day, consider this mindfulness meditation. This guided practice (which includes a video and a script) is an invitation to witness your thoughts as if they were clouds passing through the sky.
Another practice you can consider is a wordless meditation. In other words, you can practice mindfulness on your own with the support of calming music in the background. Draw awareness to the vibration of these sounds and notice if this creates a shift in mind and body before drifting off.
If you are feeling tension in mind or in body before sleep, consider this 10-minute guided sleep meditation led by Sean Fargo. This mindfulness practice offers guidance to soften and to harness self-compassion and self-care.
Another technique we can practice to support us in drifting off to sleep is gratitude. Gratitude is an invitation to draw mindful awareness to what we are blessed with in this moment and in life in general. Sean Fargo leads a gratitude meditation to increase appreciation and support rest.
For those that are struggling with worried thoughts before sleep, consider this gentle practice of letting go by Jason Stephenson. It includes a blend of practices, including mindfulness techniques and visualization.
This sleep meditation is a practice of cultivating equanimity as a way of arriving at a more balanced state of ease. As we cultivate inner equanimity, we might find it easier to drift into sleep. This meditation also includes breath and body awareness.
Another track to play in the background as you drift off to sleep, this piece of music includes delta tones to help you sleep deeper and better. As you listen to this, you might begin by paying attention to your breath. Or, you might simply note the way the sounds move through you and how they impact your inner state before sleep.
Finally, this body scan meditation script uses body awareness to support mindfulness and relaxation. This script can be read prior to bed and practiced on your own – or, you can record it and play it back to yourself when you are ready to fall asleep.