Updated: Jan 13, 2020
You might be pushed to find someone who hasn't spent at least one night laying in bed worrying about one thing or another. Our minds can easily get caught up in these ‘unhelpful’ thoughts, especially at bedtime when we stop and become still. A racing, worried mind can make it very hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. Sleep disturbances of this kind can not only lead to feeling tired and irritable the next day but also to us becoming anxious about sleep itself exacerbating the problem further.
According to Aviva as many as 16 million adults in the UK suffer from sleepless nights and a third of those (31%) say they have insomnia. Two thirds (67%) of UK adults suffer from disrupted sleep and nearly a quarter (23%) manage no more than five hours a night.
A small study in JAMA Internal Medicine has shown that mindfulness-based practices can not only improve sleep quality but reduce the negative effects of poor sleep. Mindfulness is the process of bringing one's attention to our thoughts, feelings and emotions occurring in the present moment through the practice of meditation and other exercises.
The study was made up of 49 men and women over the age of 55 who were having problems sleeping. Participants were split into two groups and each group received treatment and education around sleep for six weeks. One group completed a mindfulness programme including techniques such as meditation, mindfulness exercises and movement designed to bring awareness to their moment-to-moment experience. The other group attended a weekly sleep education class learning about good sleep habits, relaxation techniques and ways to reduce stress.
The study found that the group practicing mindfulness showed an improvement in their insomnia symptoms in comparison to the sleep hygiene group and almost doubled their scores in sleep quality.
Mindfulness exercises can be as simple as bringing mindful awareness to everyday activities. For example, pick a bedtime routine such as brushing your teeth or having a shower and really focus on what you are doing whilst you are doing it. From the movements of your body, the tastes, the sensations, to the sounds and what you can see.
Whilst brushing your teeth, notice the sound of the water as it hits the basin and trickles down the plug hole. Notice the temperature of the water in your mouth, the smell and taste of the toothpaste and how the brush feels against your teeth. Notice the movements of your arms and hands as you brush your teeth back and forth.
When thoughts arise, perhaps something that happened earlier in the day or a task that needs to be done tomorrow, simply acknowledge them, let them be and bring your attention back to brushing your teeth. Again and again, your attention will wander but as soon as you realise this has happened, gently acknowledge and note where your mind has gone then bring your attention back to the task.
Another Mindfulness exercise is meditation. The study itself recommended 20 minutes of meditation a day which involves focusing your mind on the breath as it enters and leaves the body. Perhaps take a listen to this mindfulness meditation exercise - A Short Meditation On The Breath – as an opportunity to experience focusing our attention on the breath as it moves in and out of the body.