When it comes to the great pillars of health and wellbeing, getting a good night’s sleep is up there with healthy eating and regular exercise – and now mindfulness is increasingly being seen as the final piece of the puzzle.
Just as nutrition and fitness are intrinsically linked and work in synergy, so, too, do sleep and mindfulness. As well as contributing to our wellness as separate entities, they also work in a feedback loop: mindfulness can help us sleep better while good sleep can promote more mindful behaviour.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is simply the awareness that arises when we deliberately pay attention, non-judgmentally, to what is happening in the present moment, both externally and in our mind and body.
Crucially, this includes our thoughts. So rather than becoming all consumed by the incessant torrent of distracting and potentially stressful thoughts that flood our minds on a daily basis, we are able to step back from them and let them go.
Although mindfulness can be practised anywhere at anytime, it’s often referred to in the context of mindfulness meditation, which is the formal practice of training the mind to develop this skill of present-moment living, and typically involves focusing on the body, one area at a time, or the movement of the breath in the body.
And it isn’t all about wearing tie-dye harem pants and chanting ‘ohm’. Although its roots are in ancient Eastern contemplative traditions, the modern construct of mindfulness we’ve been hearing so much about lately is a science-backed secular concept that’s as much about brain science as it is spirituality.
And there is a robust, and ever growing, body of research that shows mindfulness-based practices, such as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy can help with everything from depression, anxiety, stress and self-esteem to chronic pain, relationship difficulties, creativity and productivity. And, of course, sleep…
How mindfulness can improve our sleep
“Pretty much everyone will experience periods of sleeplessness at some point in their life. Usually these bouts of reduced sleep correspond to levels of stress. But in the same way that mental health problems can lead to poor sleep, poor sleep can lead to mental health problems,” says Andy Puddicombe, co-founder of Headspace, the globally-renowned mindfulness website and app.
“It is this negative loop which can so quickly spin out of control and which is ultimately responsible for insomnia. You can’t sleep, which causes you to worry, which in turn prevents you from sleeping and so on.”
And that’s where mindfulness, and its ability to distance us from our thoughts, comes in:
“Although you can’t possibly control all the thoughts and feelings that arise in the mind, you can most definitely be responsible for the way you experience them. So when difficult thoughts arise, do you ‘react’, getting frustrated, worried or downhearted? Or do you ‘respond’ with a sense of ease, awareness and acceptance?” says Puddicombe.
“Your familiarity with mindfulness and your ability to step back and observe the thoughts and emotions a little more clearly will be critical in turning a ‘reaction’ into a ‘response’. And this is exactly what you are training your mind to do when you sit and meditate.”
It’s not surprising then that numerous studies have shown mindfulness to be an effective tool for reducing insomnia, including this Harvard trial, which found mindfulness meditation improved sleep quality and daytime impairment among older adults.
More recently, a 2014 trial of 54 adults with chronic insomnia found that both mindfulness-based stress therapy and mindfulness-based treatment for insomnia led to significant sleep gains, including reductions in total wake times.
Introduce a mindful bedtime routine
If you want to give yourself the best chance of distancing yourself from those sleep-sabotaging thoughts, Puddicombe recommends introducing a mindful bedtime routine.
“It might be taking a bath, brushing your teeth, and reading for half an hour by a gentle light. But establishing a set routine and sticking to it means you’re less likely to be exposed to unpredictable thoughts right before you hit the hay,” he says.
He also recommends excluding your phone from the ritual and implementing a work email curfew. And the grand finale? A meditation, of course.
“I would recommend meditating in the evening,” he adds. “It could feel a bit unnatural at first, but putting aside ten minutes to do a simple breathing meditation before bed can often help you get off to sleep quicker. Think of it as a de-stress meditation, a chance to slow down and create a buffer between your waking life and your bedtime.”
The Headspace app includes a sleep meditation, which involves focusing on each area of your body, giving the muscles permission to ‘switch off’ starting at the toes and working your way up. And great news for the sleep-deprived parents of little night-owls: in the Headspace for Kids section, there is a version aimed at children, specifically tailored to help kids to calm down at bedtime and prepare their minds for sleep.
How sleep can make us more mindful
Just as a mindfulness can help us to drift off to sleep, a good night’s sleep can help us to cultivate a mindful attitude as we go about our daily business – or put another way, a lack of sleep can make us more mindless.
One of the key benefits of mindfulness, as demonstrated in numerous studies, is its capacity to help us regulate our emotions, which in turn can lead to more considered reactions and decisions.
In line with this, sleep deprivation has been shown to have the opposite effect, inhibiting our emotional regulation. Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience found that loss of sleep alters emotional reactivity by lowering the threshold emotional activation, leading to a maladaptive loss of emotional neutrality and leading to increased anxiety and stress brought on by seemingly minor triggers.
So, if you want to boost your health and wellbeing a sleep meditation followed by an early night would be a good place to start...