- Research suggests that through meditation we can train our minds and rewire our brains to be more calm and focused.
- In practicing mindfulness, we teach the mind to switch from dwelling on the past and projecting into the future to focus on the here and now.
- Take a few moments to meditate throughout your day to “declutter” your mind, so all your restless energy doesn’t overwhelm you at night.
By Dr. Cortland Dahl
How did you sleep last night?
Resting should be the easiest thing we do in a day, but for far too many of us, it’s filled with frustration and fatigue. We’re exhausted, sometimes bone-tired, yet somehow we fail to get the sleep we so desperately crave. Instead we lay in the dark hoping to mentally power down, our heads increasingly crowded with stressful thoughts, until sleep feels like a distant memory.
We often blame ourselves for our inability to sleep. We’re too anxious, too sensitive, too ‘Type A,’ or too easily distracted. In reality, though, sleeplessness is an entirely predictable response to the chaotic world we occupy. We are continually bombarded with new information, keeping us in a state of constant stimulation. No wonder sleep eludes so many of us.
Research suggests that, through meditation, we can train our minds and rewire our brains to be more calm and focused. In a recent study we conducted at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in which 700 school employees practiced meditation for five minutes a day, participants improved on every single variable measured: psychological distress, loneliness, and rumination all sharply decreased. And remarkably, this study was conducted during the most frightening period of the COVID-19 pandemic, when cases were skyrocketing and the vaccine had yet to be released.
What is meditation?
Simply put, meditation is training for the mind. Some of its forms, like mindfulness meditation, enhance our ability to be less distracted and more focused on the present moment. Other techniques cultivate qualities such as kindness or gratitude. There are even meditation practices that can inspire a greater sense of purpose, or foster insight and wisdom.
How can meditation help with sleep?
When you are unable to fall asleep, your head might be on the pillow, but your mind is likely somewhere else entirely. Maybe you’re still attempting to solve a stressful problem, rehashing a conflict from earlier in your day, or imagining some future scenario. Such mental chatter activates networks in your brain, setting off a cascade of responses in your nervous system. The net result? The current of thoughts flowing through your mind leads to a stress response in your body, which disrupts your ability to let go and rest.
Studies show that mindfulness, one of the most widely-studied forms of meditation, can shift this dynamic and positively impact the quality of our sleep. In practicing mindfulness, we teach the mind to switch from dwelling on the past and projecting into the future to focus on the here and now. At bedtime, this skill is invaluable.
Here are a few simple strategies to upgrade your sleep routine:
Wind down with a bedtime meditation
One of the best times to meditate is just as you are falling asleep. Lay down as you would ordinarily, and get comfortable. Bring a gentle awareness to the sensations in your body, beginning with the feel of your head resting on the pillow. Slowly, scan downward throughout your body, from the top of your head down to the tips of your toes. Spend five or ten seconds on each area of your body before moving on to the next part. Notice all the points of contact where your body meets the bed, and the feeling of the bedding resting on you. Feel the pull of gravity, as though you are slowly sinking into your mattress.
The key here is to notice the sensations without judgment, and with a very light touch of awareness. You don’t need to focus intensely. This should feel relaxed and nearly effortless.
If you’d like to give this a try, here’s a guided meditation that will help you get started.
Wake up with mindful awareness
Waking up with meditation is a terrific way to start your day off in a healthy frame of mind. As soon as you begin to wake, before you open your eyes, take a few slow, calming breaths. Notice how your breath feels as it moves through your body. Next, let your breath return to its natural rhythm, and continue to rest your attention on the sensations of the breathing process.
After a few minutes of mindful breathing, think about the day ahead. Bring to mind specific activities and set positive intentions for how you want to carry yourself. For instance, you might decide to focus on an important personal value, like kindness, or perseverance. Hold that value in your mind and imagine all the ways you might bring it to life as you move through your day.
Give it a try with this Waking Up with Awareness guided meditation.
Declutter your mind throughout the day
It’s especially rough to fall asleep (and stay asleep) when we’ve brought all of the stress from our day into bed with us. Taking a few moments to meditate throughout your day can help you to “declutter” your mind, so all your restless energy doesn’t overwhelm you when it’s finally time to unwind.
There are countless courses and apps available that can help you get started. If you want a science-based approach, you can try the Healthy Minds Program, a free app that includes step-by-step instructions on training the mind and cultivating well-being.
Learning to meditate is much easier than you might think, and even a few minutes a day can make a big difference to your sleep quality. If you stick with it, you can move beyond the stress and frustration and transform your nightly sleep cycle into a restful period of self-discovery.