You might have heard of mindfulness, but what is it, and how can it help with sleep? Mindfulness isn’t just meditation, and it isn’t a magical tool that allows people to wind down just before bed, but it can be a beneficial technique for improving sleep and how we feel through the day. 

What is mindfulness?

As described by Dr Antonio Fernando, mindfulness is the state of learning how to be accepted in a very non-judgmental way our current emotions, thoughts, feelings, and temptations and being aware of the present.

According Dr Fernando (psychiatrist), the human mind is constantly busy, ruminative, always spinning stories, and tends to focus too much on the future. We always want things to be different, or for some of us, we tend to focus a lot on the past. “Why did they do that?” “Why did you say that?” “I’m such an idiot.” “I don’t deserve this.”

This way of thinking, if that can be developed, can often minimise if not improve our suffering. Mindfulness can help people recognise when worrisome thoughts come up and not let them interfere with sleep. That is why for many clinical situations, Dr Fernando uses “mindfulness” as one option to help clients, especially those who suffer from depression, anxiety and those who suffer from all sorts of sleep conditions.

On the other hand, Dr Giselle Withers (psychologist), defines mindfulness as the awareness that comes from paying attention to the present moment with an open and non-judging attitude. So it’s letting go of thinking about the past and the future and bringing your focus to the present, facing life as it is. Mindfulness is about noticing when the mind has wandered off and bringing your attention back to the present moment. 

However, this tends not to be the natural state of the adult human mind. Our default mode is generally quite a distracted state. Our minds constantly wander off, and we plan ahead and contemplate other problems we’re facing, or we daydream.

How can mindfulness help sleep?

Dr Allie Peters (psychologist) sees mindfulness being used across the board for various health issues: autoimmune diseases, migraines, obesity, muscle pain, etc. One of the things that really stands out from the way mindfulness can help with sleep is its impact on stress. 

We all know that stress is such a pervasive issue in modern society, and it’s also an important consideration when reviewing the underpinnings of insomnia. It also has the potential to perpetuate and precipitate the condition. High levels of stress throughout the day make it harder for the parasympathetic nervous system to reach a state where sleep is likely to occur.

Dr Peters and her research team (that I was a part of) included a combination of mindfulness meditation, sleep restriction, stimulus control and sleep hygiene in the research they did. Participants attended weekly group sessions for six weeks where they learned how to meditate and learned a combination of beneficial behavioural techniques to manage their sleep.

Participants were also given homework to help train their brains to quiet down with the provided tools to be able to manage ongoing things. Some of them were in different types of meditations, so they learned how to attend to the present moment using a breathing meditation and advanced up – to learn how to meditate with their emotions and manage them really effectively.

The results were very promising. They saw several different changes over time, and the primary outcome measure was the insomnia severity index. The team observed quite large changes in insomnia severity that were maintained during the three-month follow-up period. There were also reductions in sleep latency and improvements in sleep duration. These were also reflected in actigraphy results. The participants were feeling better about their sleep.

How is mindfulness different from CBT?

Unlike cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness changes your relationship with sleep in a much deeper way. One of the key components of mindfulness teaches us how to be more accepting of the present time. So we can accept being awake without judging it to have much less of an emotional reaction to it that may lead to less stress.

In CBT, people are taught to change their thoughts and beliefs about sleep, which is certainly helpful, but adding mindfulness complements this and helps people to step back from their thoughts and beliefs about sleep and take a different approach and mindset to sleep.

How can we use mindfulness for sleep?

Mindfulness meditation is training in non-doing, that is, training in non-striving. That’s what we practice in meditation – being in the moment, not trying to get anywhere or achieve anything and just being with things as they are. So then at night, if they are awake, people can stay calm enough to be able to use techniques they have learnt from CBT such as stimulus control, relaxation and challenging their thoughts and beliefs about sleep. 

Once people discover how to do this in mindfulness practice, they can translate these skills into letting go of striving for sleep. They can easily accept that they’re awake, non-judging the experience, letting go of trying to control sleep and then non-striving for sleep and having the patience just to lie in bed and rest if you’re not sleeping and trust that the body will take care of itself and that sleep will come in its own time.

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