How Meditation Can Help Sleep
Friday 19th March is ‘World Sleep Day’. Given that sleeping problems are so common I thought I would write something on the subject.
Sleep, despite being one of the most natural things in the world that you do, sleep can be one of those really tricksy things, prone to being affected by so many different factors. What you eat, what you drink, what is going on in your life, your past experiences, your hormones, pain, your age, medications you may be taking, your environment and of course your physical, emotional and energy health too, all play a part.
A Complex Problem
Sleep is so vital to all our bodily functions, including mentally and emotionally. Sleep deprivation is a well-known device of torturers so it is easy to see how quickly not sleeping well can become a significant problem.
One of the biggest challenges to sorting out sleep is that there are so many different underlying causes. This means that the remedies required are very varied too. Your best friend, of a similar age, may describe sleeping problems that sound identical to yours. They may share a wonderful ‘cure’ that has transformed their sleep with certainty that it will help you too. When you enthusiastically try that same solution, you find that it doesn’t do anything to improve your own nocturnal tossing and turning at all. It can be such a frustrating and disappointing thing!
A Big or Small Problem
Quality of sleep can vary on a daily basis. It can be an occasional problem when you’ve had a particularly trying day or know you have to get up early for something important. In this situation it might only cause a minor inconvenience or temporary challenge. But if it goes on for longer it can quickly become a more chronic, ongoing difficultly that can start to have quite serious repercussions for your health and wellbeing. It can also strike in what seems like a very random fashion, making it still harder to work out what causing is.
Finding a solution can be a combination of many things. You might find that a simple home remedy or a few tweaks to your night time routine do the trick. But you may, on occasion, find yourself needing to consult with a number of professionals or even take some medication. More often than not it does include a degree of trial and error. Taking that step to ask for help, with any problem, is a really positive part of learning to take good care of yourself.
Tools in the box
When people talk to me about sleeping problems, I have a number of tools in my box that I can offer that may help. By listening carefully to what you describe I will often suggest a particular course of action as a first step. We might strike lucky and get a great result straight away but sometimes more than one thing is needed.
For the purposes of this article, I wanted to share a little about how meditation, as one of those tools, can be a great thing to try if you are struggling to sleep…
The Monkey Mind
First a little background to help understand why meditation is useful for this problem…
We live in a world where we are always being invited to ‘do more, in less time’. It is an environment full of stimulants and stimulation, where being busy and overstretched can be worn like a badge of honour and where most people have quite a number of different things in their lives that they are juggling. Even when these are essentially all good things, they can still easily tip into overwhelm. When you start to feel overstretched or are worrying about things, what tends to happen is that your mind goes into monkey mode. It is important to say here that this is true of all humans and we can think of monkey mind as being a little like a chronic and incurable condition that we can learn to manage more or less well but can’t ever completely stop happening.
I’m sure you will recognise what I mean as I describe the monkey mind in a little more detail. You can spot your monkey mind occurring when you feel frazzled and your mind is in overdrive. Ironically it can feel hard to think, or certainly to concentrate and focus, at the very same time as your thoughts are racing at lightning speed. It can feel like there are too many thoughts crowding your head, a little like being in a really busy, noisy room with everyone talking at once so loudly that you can’t hear any one person clearly.
When the monkey mind takes hold, it is also common for the quality of thoughts to become more negative, more self-critical or more judgemental in nature. You might start telling yourself things about not being able to cope, about failing at a particular task or even being a failure as a person. Most humans have the capacity to be very cruel to themselves within their own heads and the more your mind gets into monkey mode the more likely this is to happen.
The Monkey Mind Can Affect Sleep
A racing, worrying and stressed mind is a common reason that people give for not being able to sleep. It can stop you dropping off in the first place or strike if you happen to wake in the middle of the night, often in that 3-4 am window. If you find yourself awake in advance of your alarm you might find the monkey mind starts raging and you can’t get the benefit of sleeping for that last hour or two that you have left in bed. It is possible to feel completely exhausted in your body as your mind simultaneously continues its relentless chattering. It can feel bad enough when worries are churning round but sometimes even more frustrating when the thoughts seem to not even be about anything of importance!
How Meditation Can Help
Meditation can be done in many different ways but for the purposes of balancing and quieting the mind it can be a very simple, quick and effective tool. With practice, ideally at times when you don’t feel completely in the grip of your monkey mind, you can start to get more confident in using these techniques. That confidence can then make it easier to remember to use them, when you most need them, to at least take a bit of a step back and feel more in control.
Some Things You Can Try
There are a number of meditation techniques that may be more useful at a time when you are struggling to sleep. You may find it helpful to practice them in a sitting position, with your spine upright, initially. In this position it is often easier for us to focus and concentrate. Once you have the hang of them you can then practice them, with a little modification if needed, in a laying position that can be done whilst you are in bed. Whichever way you choose to sit or lay, be comfortable. Don’t be afraid to move or adjust your body at any point in order to remain comfortable or to ease a pain or an itch. The Nature of the Mind During Meditation and Mindfulness
It is really important, just to add, that the nature of the monkey mind IS that it will wander and get distracted, lose focus and take you down rabbit warrens of thought. The more you can recognise that as part of the process, part of the nature of the mind itself, the easier it will be to not feel annoyed or frustrated by it, and not to judge yourself for it or feel that it means that you can’t meditate or are doing something wrong. By acknowledging it for what it is, all that you then need to do is to gently guide your mind back to whatever you were trying to focus on, as many times as you need to. This might feel like hundreds of times in only a few minutes; that’s ok.
Remember that the monkey mind is a chronic condition. Like a lively puppy our minds need constantly refocusing and the more we do that, with kindness, the more likely we are to be successful at learning to bring it into a state of greater calm as often as we need to.
A Few Other Ideas
These are just a few ideas for meditation techniques that might help. You might find a recorded meditation helpful to have someone guide you or some relaxing music playing quietly can help you focus. I have a number of recorded meditations that you can listen to or download and the instrumental versions from my most recent tracks are also available.
Coming to a meditation class can also be useful, then you can get some direct tuition and usually learn a range of different meditation techniques. I am currently running an online meditation half hour every Thursday evening at 7.30pm, which is a great way to wind down for your evening. You don’t need any previous experience to come along. If you sign up to my email list you even get your first Thursday evening meditation class free.
If meditation doesn’t seem to help, or you are struggling to feel like you can do it, don’t be afraid to reach out. There are real things that can get in the way of making this feel doable that might fall beyond the scope of self-care so you haven’t failed if you haven’t managed to sort it out yourself. Think of it like getting some expert help for your car, your electrics, your plumbing or your computer, assuming you’re not already an expert in all of those things.
I am always happy to arrange a time for a short chat on the phone or Zoom, with no obligation, to see what might help. And above all, be kind to yourself.
©Dr Karen Janes, March 2021.
- Belly Breathing: This might sound a little absurd but many people tend to breathe high in their chest rather than down in to their belly, particular when feeling stressed or anxious. You can check this by taking a few deep breaths with one hand on your chest and one on the upper part of your abdomen, (the soft bit just under your ribs). Ideally you will find your belly softly expanding and relaxing. Aim for the hand on your chest to remain almost still and for your shoulders to keep sliding down rather than moving up a down.
- Breath Focus: Once you have the hang of belly breathing you can begin directing your mind to focusing on your breath. By closing your eyes it will be easier to bring your awareness into your body. Listen to the sound of your breathing. Notice the sensations of movement in your body, the sensations of the air flowing in and out. Sink into the rhythm of your breath and allow that to soothe you. Focusing on your breath can also be something you can do for just a minute or two during your day, in the car, whilst washing up, or even sat on the loo!
- Finding Balance: When your mind is in full on monkey mode it is likely that you will have some sense of feeling out of balance. A simple technique that can help you to feel more in balance involves finding the very centre of your body and resting your attention there. One way to do this is to imagine a pendulum dropping down from the crown of your head all the way down and out between your legs. Allow it to gently sway until it finds stillness and keep drawing it back away from your eyes and nose, in your head, and away from your belly button and towards your spine, further down in your body.
- Relaxing Muscles and Using Gravity: Progressive Muscular Relaxation is the fancy name given to something that is really more of a relaxation technique than a meditation. It can be a useful thing to try when, particularly if your body feels agitated or restless. Work your way around your body tensing and releasing the main muscle groups in turn and then letting them soften. It is often easier to relax a muscle if we tense it first. Once you have worked all the way round, with your eyes closed, really tune into the weight of gravity on your body. It can help to focus on the sensations of the different parts of your body pressing into your mattress and sinking in. Combining this with some belly breathing can also work well.
- Mindfulness: Mindfulness really just means being aware of what is happening in the present moment. You can focus your attention on the sounds and sensations from the environment around you or more directly within and surrounding your body. You might find my Mindful Moments Meditation useful to have a listen to.