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Miracle mindfulness? How to get a better night’s sleep… now

Most of us will be familiar with encountering racing thoughts as we try to go to sleep, and will know how frustrating it is to find ourselves awake in the small hours due to this. We look at how mindfulness can help you regain control over your mind, body and ability to sleep.
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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.

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Yes, sleepless nights are awful, and what’s even worse is their tendency to happen with a sort-of spiralling effect – once you’ve had one, you get so nervous it will happen again, you end up spending half the week in an anxiety-induced insomnia. And you’re not alone. Reports show that over half of Brits are not getting anywhere near enough sleep[i], and that the UK is one of the most sleep-deprived populations in the world[ii].

[i][i] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/23/brits-sleep-deprived-smartphonesn5105189.html

[ii] https://stv.tv/news/uk/1371332-britons-among-most-sleep-deprived-in-the-world-study-finds/

Back to basics: creating the right environment

Of course, there are a lot of external factors that stop us from sleeping, and it’s vital to tackle these first and foremost to make sure you’re not giving yourself any unnecessary obstacles. Make sure your mattress is working for you, that you’re not using tech right before bed and that your room is cool, uncluttered and comfortable. Getting your environment right is key to ensuring you get a good night’s sleep because it only takes a few repetitive triggers, i.e. being woken up by niggling aches and pains, to eventually wake you up and signal to your body that – actually – you’re not going to sleep right now.

Think of your discomfort like an ongoing snooze alarm – eventually it’ll drag you out of your slumber and signal that it’s time to get up. With that in mind, only go for quality mattresses that don’t cause unwanted backache, be picky over pillows to avoid that unwanted crick in the neck, and make sure your bedding is appropriate for the time of year to keep the temperature right. It also helps to establish a clear ‘sleep zone’ in your room – that means no television, laptop or work files anywhere near the bed!

But (you could sense a but coming, couldn’t you?), the fact of the matter is – for many people – it’s not always this simple, and the inability to sleep stems from reasons that are very much internal, as opposed to external. Which brings us on to our next point…

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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.

[i] https://shinedrink.com/blogs/brainbites/how-mindfulness-can-help-you-get-ahead

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3. Do a breathing awareness exercise in bed

After you’ve carried out your pre-sleep routine and are tucked up in bed, practice a simple breathing awareness exercise to focus the mind on the body – a great way to bring yourself into the present moment. Simply count your breaths and pay attention to the way your body moves as you breathe – and don’t berate yourself if your mind wanders (which it will). Just bring your focus back to your breathing when that happens, and carry on as normal

4. Do a body scan relaxation exercise

Equally as good for focusing the mind is to imagine your body, bit by bit, as you lie in bed – from your feet to your head and back again. Mentally travel up from your toes, to your ankles, calves to your knees and so on, paying close attention to the feeling in each part of your body and visualising it as best you can. In doing so, you’ll tune into what you’re feeling in the here and now, as opposed to worrying about things that haven’t happened yet (or may not ever happen!). It can also help to think of each of the parts of your body as relaxed, heavy and warm.

Difficulty sleeping can have a huge impact on your life – from your physical health to your mental well-being and general enjoyment of the day to day. So don’t sit around and wait for things to change on their own. Get to know your mind, and learn how to give it much needed periods of rest by practicing mindfulness. That way, you’ll be better equipped to sleep the night through and wake up feeling refreshed and raring to go. The rest as they say, will follow.

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