We’ve all been there. You’re lying in bed, exhausted, stressed and staring at the clock, counting down how much time you have left before your alarm goes off. Chances are, stress is what woke you up early in the first place and now the stress of getting too little sleep is keeping you awake.
It’s no surprise that one of the most common triggers for insomnia is stress—both good and bad. Stress comes from thinking about the past or worrying about the future, losing track of being in the moment. I commonly hear patients tell me that when they get in bed at night to try and sleep, their brains don’t stop and instead they’re thinking of the day, what didn’t get done, what needs to get done and any other pressing or mundane issues in life.
What gets lost is the ability to be in the present moment, focusing on the breath, relaxing and letting sleep come.Although mindfulness is truly based in Buddhist meditation, clinical psychology has begun to utilize mindfulness as a treatment for many anxiety and depressive disorders. Many of my patients have noticed that taking a non-judgmental stance—one where accepting the present as it is and not ruminating on the past or future—has dramatically improved their anxiety and depressive rumination.
When we lose awareness of the present moment, our minds have a tendency to habitually get stuck in maladaptive ways of thinking. Mindfulness can help us step back, be in the present and recognize some of these habits that take us off track and further away from our overall goals in life, including getting a better night’s sleep.
Newer models of insomnia treatment are beginning to incorporate meditative components. During mindful meditation, the mind is focused on the act of meditation itself—being in the moment, inhaling, exhaling or repeating a certain mantra—to bring about relaxation. Mindfulness allows us to have more present-moment awareness and not get stuck on thoughts that take us out of the moment.
Work your way up. Admittedly, it is extremely difficult to just “be mindful” at all times. When I learned mindfulness, I was taught to really aim for just a few seconds of mindfulness at a time, working my way up to five, then 10 minutes. It is really tough to do and is almost like a mental muscle that needs to get strengthened over time. When it comes to sleep, being mindful can help us from getting stuck on rumination in bed, quiet our minds and bring about relaxation…and eventually sleep.
Turn simple moments into mindfulness exercises. For example, if you’re going to get a manicure and it is time for the hand massage, try to be in the moment for that minute, focusing solely on the relaxation and calming sensations that the massage brings. If your mind wanders to think about anything and everything else you have going on in life—e.g. “I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning!” or “This massage should be so easy to focus on, why can’t I do it?!”—notice that your mind wandered without judging yourself and get your mind back on track to the massage. Your mind might wander 15 times during the massage, but that’s fine. The real skill is in being able to non-judgmentally notice when your brain is wandering and refocus yourself back on the present moment.
Try eating mindfully. A great way to practice mindfulness throughout the day is through mindful eating. We eat multiple times a day, but typically we are eating while talking with others, reading a book, doing work or watching TV. Being mindful while eating has been shown to help with weight loss since we usually aren’t aware of just how much we’re eating due to other distractions. To practice mindful eating, first sit down at the table in front of your food. Notice the color, texture, shape and smell. Simply observe. Once you take your first bite, notice where in your mouth the food is now located, what do you taste, smell? What textures do you feel? Silently labeling each observation, e.g. smooth, sweet or crunchy, can help ground you and keep you in the present. If your mind wanders off task, simply notice you wandered and non-judgmentally get back on track.
Practice, practice, practice. Mindfulness can be practiced in almost any situation, such as sitting in a quiet room observing the noises around you, looking at a picture on the wall and describing the colors you see. With more practice comes more ability to use it in more challenging, varied and/or stressful circumstances. The more you practice, the better.I encourage you to take a break from whatever you’re doing now and practice being mindful for just one minute. With more practice, you’ll crave mindful moments throughout the day, and hopefully, you’ll find it easier to quiet your mind at night and fall asleep with little fuss.