Is there anything worse than not being able to sleep? Than that wide awake, heart-pounding, mind-racing, how-on-earth-am-I-going-to-get-through-work-tomorrow feeling that’s so common, yet so hard to diffuse? Just take a breath, you tell yourself. Focus on sleep, don’t panic, keep calm and carry on – count sheep, follow imaginary roads, assign a town to every letter of the alphabet. Eventually a blissful slumber will come. And so you do carry on – counting sheep and so on and so forth – only the slumber never does come, and as the late night turns into early morning you’re still wide awake – and about 18,000 sheep on.
What exactly is mindfulness, and what does it have to do with sleep?
Mindfulness, as described by a Perspectives on Psychological Science study, is “the non-judgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment.”[i] And despite being an ancient practice, it has soared in popularity recently as the perfect antidote to modern-day stress, illness and anxiety. This is because people are switching on to the fact that we spend too much of our time, well, switched on. We go from day to day, juggling a million and one things to do, all while fretting either over what has been or what will be. In doing so, we lose the ability to simply live in the moment, which is why it can be particularly hard to sleep when your mind is running riot – you just cannot switch off, even though you’re physically exhausted and need to sleep.
Because of this, mindfulness and sleep go together in the same way that exercise and a good diet do. When working in harmony, they create great results for your general wellbeing, and each one benefits the other. That means not only does mindfulness make us sleep better, but getting plenty of sleep can make us more mindful. Win win.
So how does it all work?
Applying mindfulness to sleep is helpful because it enables us to distance ourselves from our thoughts and emotions, and accept them with a sense of ease. Being mindful is not about controlling all these thoughts and feelings – Hello?! Impossible! – but it is about viewing them from afar, accepting them for what they are, and not resorting to worrying, fretting or getting downhearted and panicked. It’s about responding, not reacting. This, in turn, helps us to stem the adrenaline rush that comes with negative emotion, curb the stress of worrying, and settle into a clearer, more focused state of mind – all the better for sleeping with. And if it all sounds a bit wishy-washy or unachievable, don’t worry. You’re not expected to just ‘be mindful’ straight away. It’s a skill, and something you learn with practice – which is why it’s great that there are so many fantastic apps out there now for this purpose alone. But to get you started, here are a few techniques that are bound to have beneficial effects on your ability to nod off:
1. Introduce a mindful bedtime routine
Routine works for children for a very good reason, and the same logic can be applied to adults. Following a tried and tested series of events (having a bath, brushing your teeth, reading for twenty minutes), leaves you less exposed to unexpected thoughts right before bed, allowing your brain to settle into that familiar old slumber-state-of-mind. Simple as that.
2. Meditate in the evening
Put aside ten minutes every evening – preferably not long before you hit the hay – for some peaceful breathing exercises and meditation. Find an app that suits you and learn to ropes as you go – it might feel weird at first, but it acts as a great buffer between your waking time and sleep time.