As a Sleep Wellness Coach who helps busy people sleep better so they can reclaim joy in their lives, I teach sleep meditation techniques.
It’s NOT because meditation is “relaxing” or because it can help put you to sleep. True meditation techniques have more wide-spread benefit than what they’ve been reduced to in many of the apps now widely marketed to insomniacs.
Rather, meditation is one* effective way to overcome some of the mental challenges we face when restorative sleep is hard to come by.
Below are 4 reasons why the quality of your sleep depends on learning meditation techniques.
When you meditate, you:
1. Meditation re-trains your 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 often 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 pattern we must break.
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–an object we’ll direct our focus to, and 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, practice (plus some compassion and 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.
2. Meditation techniques help you focus on more positive / neutral content.
I don’t know about you, but I’m bombarded these days with negative information. News about the pandemic, the economy and stock market being wonky, natural disasters, political angst. In the midst of 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.
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 “un-grounded”. 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). You can try doing meditation on a tree here. See how you feel afterwards!
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, this 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 using the meditation technique is directing our mind toward something else–to something that’s much healthier for our mind, body, and spirit.
3. Meditation helps 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 books (i.e. if the topic / content is personally stimulating).
Practicing meditation encourages a 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 state (usually grouped in with the less desirable “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. It is the physiological definition of resilience.
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. Meditation techniques empower you to sleep better.
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 friend of mine recently 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 was 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 the chaos. It was probably the best thing she could have done for herself (and her mood).
I hope this post helped connect some of the dots in terms of why meditation is so important for people who struggle to sleep because of stress and anxious thoughts.
Tip: “Meditation” is often equated with sitting still and trying to stop your thoughts. Attempts at this will typically NOT work well for stressed-out people with busy, anxious minds. It’s not what will ultimately help you if you have trouble falling and staying asleep. Possibly, it may frustrate you further and worsen your problem.