As a Sleep & Well-Being Coach who helps busy people sleep better so they can reclaim joy in their lives, I teach meditation techniques.
It’s NOT because meditation is “relaxing” or because it can help PUT you to sleep. The truth is, meditation techniques have more wide-spread benefits for sleep than what’s marketed in apps for the sleepless.
Meditation is one* effective way to overcome some of the mental challenges one faces when restorative sleep is hard to come by.
Below are 4 reasons why the quality of your sleep depends on meditation.
1. Meditation re-trains your mind to be attentive.
Many people struggle to fall or back to asleep because of their overactive, racing mind. A mind that won’t stop thinking, worrying, planning, reviewing, etc. A mind that simply will not be still long enough for surrender to slumber.
During the day, you’re constantly being pulled in different directions. Your senses dictate where your mind goes. The person passing by your office window? That “ding” on your phone? The smell coming from your kitchen? How many times do you stop what you’re doing and have a look? Such behavior is often automatic.
Yet every moment you succumb to sense-driven distraction, you train your mind to be inattentive. This carries over into your nights. It’s a pattern you must break.
You can re-train your mind to focus on something you (rather than your senses) choose. In fact, the first stage of meditation is often described as “concentration.”
You select an object you’ll direct our focus to, and practice doing that. You may practice for 5 minutes and have to bring your attention back 5000 times. That’s OK! Like building any new skill, dedication, practice (plus some compassion and patience) can help.
When your 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 positive/neutral content.
I don’t know about you, but I’m bombarded with negative information. News about ongoing health issues, the economy and stock market, natural disasters, political angst.
We’re 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 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).
The act of linking more neutral and/or positive content with 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 mind 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 using the meditation technique is directing our mind toward something else—to something that’s much healthier for your mind, body, and spirit.
Related: More Than Just Mind & Body.
3. Meditation helps soothe your nervous system.
Practices many people think are soothing 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). Dr. Rubin Naiman rightly encourages us to distinguish between rest and “recreation.”
Practicing meditation encourages a busy mind to touch base with more restful states throughout the daytime.
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.
Related: What is Rest & Why You Need It.
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 aside: 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 as she did 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).