Even if you slept well a few weeks ago, you might now be having trouble falling and staying asleep. The anxiety of our COVID-19 pandemic is a pandemic onto itself, and stress is also on the rise. Work is blurring (even more!) into home life and our routines are disrupted. Conveniences we’ve come to rely on are disappearing, and we’re spending more time in close proximity to others (who of course, we love).
As a Sleep Wellness Coach who helps busy professionals learn to sleep better and restore their energy, I have been teaching more meditation courses online lately. Why? Because in my experience, meditation is one* effective way to overcome some of the mental challenges we face when restorative sleep is hard to come by. Here are 4 reasons why your sleep depends on meditation.
When you meditate, you:
1. Re-train the mind to be attentive.
The #1 problem many people have when attempting to fall or stay asleep is an overactive, racing mind. It’s a mind that won’t stop thinking, worrying, planning, reviewing, etc. It’s a mind that simply will not be still long enough for us to surrender to slumber.
During the day, we’re constantly being pulled in different directions. Our senses often dictate where our mind goes. The person passing by our office window? That “ding” on the phone? The smell coming from the kitchen? Yup, we usually stop what we’re doing so we can take a look-see. Such behavior is automatic.
Every moment we succumb to sense-driven distraction, we train our minds to be inattentive. This carries over into our evenings and our nights. It’s a difficult pattern to break.
But we can re-train our minds to focus on something we (rather than our senses) choose. In fact, the first stage of meditation is described as “concentration”. We decide on–or work with a trained teacher–to choose an object to focus on, and we practice doing that. We may practice for 5 minutes and have to bring our attention back to our object 5000 times, and that’s OK. Like building any new skill, dedication, time (and some patience!) helps.
When the mind is more directable, other techniques designed to help you fall asleep (from focusing on your breath to counting sheep!) can work more easily. This may happen because you will be able to stay with them longer.
2. Focus on positive / neutral content.
I don’t know about you, but I’m bombarded these days with negative information. News about the coronavirus, the economy taking a nosedive, unemployment, the looming election. In the midst of all this, I’m a small business owner with a chronic illness, and I’ve struggled for a good part of my adult life with anxiety and depression.
In the midst of a pandemic, we are all taking in and having to process content that “stirs the pot”, so to speak. It triggers us. Balance (between negative and positive information) is non-existent.
Yet an object of meditation–meaning the place you choose to focus your attention–is generally one with a neutral or positive association. While a meditation object is best selected for you by a trained teacher, generally speaking, it will possess qualities you desire to experience within yourself.
For example, during these stressful and uncertain times, you might be feeling “ungrounded”. An object of meditation with the potential to transform this feeling is a tree. You can imagine a tree in front of you (particularly its roots and/or its trunk). As you hold your attention there, you may notice that you start to feel better. You can try doing meditation on a tree here.
The act of bringing more neutral and/or positive information into your mind-body system helps push some of the negative out. Instead of that worrisome energy getting stuck in your body and churning in your brain while you’re trying to rest and sleep, some of it is released.
In other words, meditation can help clear out some of the thoughts that typically keep you awake. However, it’s important to recognize that it’s not effort or willpower to stop your thoughts that does that. (In fact, the easiest way to stay stuck with your worries is to try and stop them!) What we’re doing during meditation is directing our mind toward something else–to something that’s much healthier for our mind, body, and spirit.
3. Soothe your nervous system.
Practices many people think are soothing to the nervous system are, in truth, just adding more fuel to the fire and keeping them awake. Some of these include: watching TV, drinking alcohol, playing video games, and even reading hardcopy books (depending on the topic).
Practicing meditation encourages a once busy mind to touch base with more restful states throughout the day.
Instead of residing firmly in sympathetic nervous system activation, the mind-body system can shift back and forth between this alert, “stress response” and parasympathetic nervous system activation (i.e. a “rest and digest” response). This flowing back and forth between the two is how we were designed to be.
Entering into the rest and digest state is REQUIRED for refreshing sleep.
If you’re not rocking yourself back and forth between alert activity and calm rest multiple times throughout the day (i.e. adhering to a natural “rest rhythm”), it’s predictable that you’ll have trouble falling and staying asleep. What’s your rest rhythm like? Download my Rest Rhythm worksheet and find out.
4. Empower yourself.
I have nothing against them, but I don’t use an app or any recordings to meditate. I don’t have to have my phone charged, silent, and with me. If I have a place to move a bit and sit, I’m good to go. The other benefit of not being reliant on these tools is that the number of excuses of why I “can’t” meditate right this very minute dissolves!
When we become less reliant on things outside ourselves (such as technology), we empower ourselves. And feeling empowered is inherently stress reducing.
An example: a few days ago, a friend of mine decided to move herself from California to Seattle so she could be closer to family. While moving is obviously a stressful event on a normal day, packing up and driving alone in the middle of a pandemic is even more so. But what she found in doing this is that she had choices. She felt happy, powerful and resilient, even in the midst of all this chaos. It was probably the best thing she could have done for herself (and her mood).
In closing, I’d like to point out that “meditation” means different things to different people. If the image you have in your mind of the person meditating is of someone sitting still and fighting to stop their thoughts, that’s not what works with busy, anxious minds, and it isn’t what I teach. And, it’s not what will help you if you have trouble falling and staying asleep.
If you’re curious about experimenting with different forms of meditation (that I guarantee you’ll have a shot at doing even when you’re anxious or stressed!), please join my upcoming 4-week Meditation for Stress Relief series.
P.s.: *Of course meditation isn’t the ONLY solution to sleep and energy challenges. If you have trouble falling and staying asleep and you’d like to chat more about your specific concerns, I invite you to schedule some time with me here.