Could Simply Observing Your Thoughts Be the Key to Beating Insomnia?

·10 min read
Photo credit: LUMEZIA - Getty Images
Photo credit: LUMEZIA - Getty Images

You finally tuck yourself into bed knowing you have a busy day tomorrow, but you can’t seem to quiet your thoughts to doze off. You toss and turn, and the worry creeps in. Ugh, I’m going to be exhausted tomorrow. Of course, this line of thinking doesn’t help and keeps the vicious cycle going.

We’ve all found ourselves in this scenario, and that’s because how we sleep is deeply personal. A snooze-inducing strategy that works for one person isn’t guaranteed to help another night owl. But experts are starting to see lots of promise in calming practices that have steadily been spiking in popularity: mindfulness and meditation.

Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, people really struggled with interrupted sleep, says Maryanna Klatt, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at The Ohio State University College of Medicine. “When there’s unresolved issues, such as a lack of control, that’s when mindfulness can be even more effective to help you be okay with the fact that things are not okay,” she says.

But it’s not as simple as listening to a guided sleep meditation to help you drift off, says Jason Ong, Ph.D., director of behavioral sleep medicine at Nox Health and adjunct associate professor of neurology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “People think of [meditation] as kind of a substitution for medication in many ways, but it is really based and grounded on the principles of mindfulness and cultivating awareness of the present moment.”

Back up: What happens in your body when you can’t sleep?

To understand what Ong means, it’s helpful to have a little background about our physiology. “When it comes to sleep problems, especially for people with chronic insomnia, oftentimes they’re so caught up in trying to make sleep happen that it creates a sense of pressure that makes sleep less likely to happen,” says Ong. “Essentially, it activates the fight or flight response that is built in our body. When that gets activated, your body thinks that it needs to be on guard or vigilant and it tends to override the parts of your brain that regulate sleep and wake.”

This is why once you have that first thought of I just wish my brain would stop thinking and let me sleep, you’re pretty much doomed—you’re already stressing about not sleeping, which makes it even harder to doze off.

How can mindfulness or meditation help improve your sleep?

Sleep tends to come a lot easier when you’re actually sleepy, but sometimes we hit the lights and get under the covers just because it’s “time for bed” without paying attention to whether that is the case—but mindfulness could change that.

“Our thinking is that by grounding yourself in the present moment and just being aware of what to look for, it gives you a better chance of reducing that fight or flight response,” says Ong. “A lot of people with insomnia go to bed because they’re tired of dealing with the day and they want to escape, but that’s not how the brain regulates sleep and wake. Meditation helps keep you from getting in your own way and it allows your brain to regulate sleep and wake based on how it naturally does.”

Wait, what’s the difference between mindfulness and meditation?

Yes, there’s a difference. Mindfulness is a way of being in the present moment with a relatively non-judgmental or non-reactive mindset and meditation can be a way to practice mindfulness, explains Michael Goldstein, Ph.D., a research fellow in the Sleep and Inflammatory Systems Laboratory at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School.

Klatt notes that you can incorporate small aspects of mindfulness into your daily activities, such as paying attention to the feel of the water, texture of the sponge, and smell of detergent while you wash dishes.

As for meditation, Ong likes to use the metaphor of trainspotting. “It’s the activity where people just observe trains, usually standing on the platform or even away from the train station,” he explains. Sometimes trainspotters take photos or write down notes; they are interested in the qualities of the train, rather than using them for a ride.

Now, imagine that your mind is like a train station. “Your thoughts and emotions are like trains coming in and out,” say Ong. “Most of us use those thoughts to analyze, judge, or do something—like people who use trains for transportation.”

In the case of meditation, you’re not trying to do anything with the trains in the station—you’re standing on the side observing them. You can’t shut off your mind, says Ong, but you can make it work differently by watching your thoughts and emotions, rather than trying to get rid of them. When you do this, the intensity of your thoughts tend to dissipate so they’re not activating your stress response system, boosting your chances of falling asleep.

Studies have found that both mindfulness and meditation can help you snooze, but scientists are still trying to figure out why. Is it that general mindfulness makes you more aware of what’s going on in your body, so you know when to go to sleep? Or is it that meditation helps your body calm down and your mind avert sleep-stopping rumination? Goldstein says most research focuses on meditation, but scientists are beginning to do a better job of separating the two and seeing how they overlap.

Should you meditate right before bed?

It really depends on whether you have chronic insomnia or occasional trouble falling asleep. For instance, one study found that two different types of meditation are linked to the release of melatonin, a hormone that promotes sleep.

But other research, including a small study that Goldstein and Ong worked on together, has found that people who received mindfulness training actually have activated brains during the night, similar to the brains of people with insomnia.

“Mindfulness and insomnia may actually both increase brain alertness,” says Goldstein. “It seems to be quite consistent with thousands of years of Buddhist philosophy, and other origins of these mindfulness practices that aim to cultivate relaxed alertness.” That arousal within the mind is expected with meditation and is not a bad thing.

“The best mindfulness practice is when you can take awareness or mindfulness towards everything you do during the day and sleep is just one of those things,” says Klatt. “But even if you’re mindful all day and you can’t let it go in order to get to sleep, then doing a meditation before you go to bed can be helpful.”

Because the effects can vary from person to person, you may have to experiment to see what schedule works best for you.

How to meditate for better sleep

Photo credit: Delmaine Donson - Getty Images
Photo credit: Delmaine Donson - Getty Images

1. Write down your worries.

“One of the meditations that I tell people to do is writing down the worries that they have on a piece of paper and putting it upside down on their bedside table so that they’re acknowledging they’re there,” says Klatt. Tell yourself, This is what’s bothering me, but I’m not going to process this right now. Those worries are still going to be there in the morning, but I’m crystallizing what they are so I can let them go for the night.

2. Move your body a little.

Try doing some slow stretches or yoga poses. “Sleep is a matter of body and mind,” says Klatt. “You can’t have your body uptight, so I think that’s the reason sleep meditations are even more effective when they involve some body movement.”

Klatt actually developed an eight-week program called Mindfulness in Motion that combines yoga, meditation, and music in a supportive group setting, and research has shown it can help improve sleep quality for both cancer survivors and their caregivers.

3. Relieve tension throughout your body.

This is especially helpful after doing some pre-bed stretches. “Get under the covers and tighten each body part so that you’re holding your whole body in tension for several seconds there, and then begin to release each body part, one at a time,” suggest Klatt. “It brings your body to a relaxation that is so effective before you go to sleep.”

4. Try a body scan meditation.

“The body scan is one where a lot of times people do fall asleep,” says Ong. Lie down and get comfortable. Then, starting with the top of your head and making your way slowly down to your toes, pay attention to every single body part (including things you might normally overlook like ears, lips, shoulders, fingers, and knees) and notice how each one feels. Don’t judge, just acknowledge sensations.

5. Practice belly breathing.

Things with breathing seem to be really helpful,” says Goldstein. In fact, one study of his found that yogic breathing helped college students better manage stress. With belly breathing, the goal is to breathe from your stomach area rather than your chest area.

“I often recommend having a hand on the belly and a hand on the chest,” says Goldstein. “That helps you notice the breathing of the chest and the breathing of the belly. There are stronger connections from the belly to the diaphragm so when we belly breathe, we’re activating those relatively calming connections more than when we’re breathing with the chest.”

6. Focus on resting.

If you’ve tried a few things and sleep just isn’t happening, Klatt suggests you stop and simply tell yourself, I don’t have to get to sleep, I’m just going to rest. “I think that that can be a helpful practice because you know how it is—your mind’s going and you think, Oh my god I’m going to be exhausted, I have to get to sleep,” she says. “And if you just give up the fight and you think I’m just going to rest, that’s mindfulness in and of itself.”

7. Learn more about mindfulness.

It can help to do a little homework and educate yourself about mindfulness so you have a better idea of how to incorporate it into other aspects of your life and, as a result, reap the benefits in your bed. “Some apps are pretty good in terms of just getting a basic introduction to mindfulness,” says Ong, who works with Headspace. “There’s also the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, which are courses that are about eight weeks long and are a deeper dive into mindfulness.”

Will meditation improve your sleep tonight?

“People will commonly try a meditation practice for a night or a few nights, and not notice a difference, but sleep naturally varies night to night,” says Goldstein.

He suggests keeping a daily log of things like sleep quality; meditation; naps; exercise; substances like alcohol, caffeine, or medications you take; time you get into bed; time you turn off the lights; middle-of-the-night wake-ups; how long it takes to fall asleep; and what time you get up in the morning. Try to notice patterns in how certain behaviors affect your sleep over time and give any new changes a week before judging if they’re helpful.

It’s also crucial to see your doctor for a sleep assessment if you’re really struggling. If an underlying condition like sleep apnea is the root of your tossing and turning, then meditation isn’t going to be your fix. An evaluation can help determine what’s really interfering with your shuteye and help you and your physician come up with an individualized treatment plan, says Goldstein.

If that plans includes mindfulness or meditation, patience and consistency are crucial. “People want to do it once and have it just work,” says Klatt. “Mindfulness meditation is a practice that you have to really bring to your whole life. It’s not a one and done thing—it’s a continual practice.”

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