What’s mindfulness and how does it help with sleep?

Mindfulness has been shown to be an effective treatment for symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress. In recent years there has been research showing it is also helpful for insomnia. Dr Giselle Withers (clinical psychologist) and Dr David Cunnington (sleep physician) discuss mindfulness and it’s role in sleep.

Audio Timeline:

  • 00:00 – 02:57  What is mindfulness?
  • 02:57 – 03:48  More than meditation
  • 03:48 – 04:35  Role of mindfulness in sleep
  • 04:35 – 05:59  What if I can’t quieten my mind at night?
Dr Giselle Withers

Dr Giselle Withers


Dr Giselle Withers is a Clinical Psychologist with over 15 years experience working across private and public health services in Australia and in the UK. Giselle runs mindfulness groups online and at the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre. For information on mindfulness classes, check out Giselle’s site, A Mindful Way.

You can also download a brochure on mindfulness classes at the Melbourne Sleep Disorders Centre here.

Related links:


David Cunnington: Giselle, I’ve had the pleasure of working with you in your role as a psychologist and sharing clients. But I really want to talk a bit about mindfulness. So what is mindfulness?

Giselle Withers: Well, mindfulness is a broad concept. But in essence, it has three key components. So firstly, it’s paying attention to the present moment and secondly, it’s having an open and non-judging attitude. Thirdly, it’s doing this on purpose or with awareness. So to elaborate on these points, mindfulness is about living in the moment by paying attention to everything happening around us and within us, like our thoughts an emotions.

So it’s not thinking about the past or worrying about the future. Rather we’re focused on the here and now. So an example of not being mindful is when someone is talking to us, but we’re actually thinking about something else. So we miss most of what they’ve said.

Mindfulness is also about having an open mind and a non-judgmental attitude to our moment to moment experiences. So it’s about suspending our constant evaluation and judging of everything happening in our lives. So rather than saying things as good or bad or right or wrong, we learn to observe things just as they are.

So for example, imaging sitting in your car in peak hour traffic, moving only a few meters per minute. Most of us will begin to feel frustrated pretty quickly. We might start worrying about being late or blaming ourselves for not driving at a better time. So no longer are we calmly in the moment. But we’re highly stressed and wishing that we were somewhere else.

So even worse, we can carry this frustration with us during the day and end up taking it out on the partner or work colleague, leading to a potential domino effect.

So mindfulness allows us to recognise that it’s not the situation that’s stressful but the way that we’re reacting to it. So if we could stop judging the situation and accept that it’s simply going to take longer to get to where we need to, then we can remain in a calm and relaxed state.

Thirdly, we practice mindfulness with awareness. That is we pay attention to the moment on purpose by choice. So children are very good at living in the moment. One minute they’re crying because another child has snatched a toy from them and a minute later, they’re playing happily again. But they don’t realise that they’re being mindful.

So as adults, we need to make a much more conscious effort to live a more present and focused life.

So living in the moment with acceptance reduces stress and suffering and it improves our general well-being.

David Cunnington: Sometimes people say, “Oh yeah, it’s just about meditation.” Is that right or is there more to it than that?

Giselle Withers: Well, meditation lies at the heart of mindfulness training. But mindfulness is much more than meditation. So mindfulness meditation teaches us how to focus our attention on the present, how to disengage with the constant strain of thoughts and it teaches many other core mindfulness skills like patience or trust, letting go and acceptance, which can help us live our lives more effectively.

It’s important to say that mindfulness is not just a technique or a method that we just apply at a particular time. The true value of mindfulness is to realise when we can live every moment of our lives with complete presence and awareness.

David Cunnington: So how does that sort of approach help people if they feel they’re not sleeping well?

Giselle Withers: Well, as you know, many people with sleep problems such as insomnia are caught in a vicious cycle. So after a period of poor sleep, they begin to worry about not sleeping and its negative effects. This drives up anxiety and physical arousal which in turn interferes with sleep.

Mindfulness helps people to disengage with these unhelpful thoughts, that people can learn to step back from thoughts and simply observe then as events coming and going from the mind. When we disengage with thoughts in this way, they no longer have power over us. They can no longer trigger strong emotions like anxiety. So it breaks the cycle and which leads to improved sleep.

David Cunnington: Sometimes I’m talking to people about mindfulness and suggesting that it’s a technique they might like to look at. They say, “Yeah, I’ve tried meditation. But really I’m not good at it. I can’t quiet my mind.” What should I say to people when they tell me that or how would you approach that?

Giselle Withers: That’s a good question. People often come to our mindfulness groups feeling worried that they can’t meditate. They’ve usually tried it before and felt they couldn’t do it. Often this is because people have a misunderstanding of what mindfulness meditation is.

Many people believe that you need to clear the mind, so it’s completely blank, which of course is impossible. So thoughts are always coming into the mind. I tell them that there is no need to clear the mind. All you need to do is to watch the thoughts come and go without getting caught up in them. So a metaphor that I like to use is that it’s like sitting beside a river and watching the leaves float by. So it’s also possible to remain an observer to the thoughts floating through our minds.

Over time, this gets easier. So it is possible to sustain longer periods of focused attention.

David Cunnington: That’s great. Thanks for answering those questions. I think I’ve got a better understanding now of how mindfulness fits and how we might be able to use it in managing people with sleep problems.


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Check our resources or take our Sleep Wellness Quiz for a free assessment of elements that may be keeping you from a good night’s sleep.

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