Get Your Sleep Back! Practicing Mindfulness Meditation as a Natural Form of Sleep Therapy

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We all are (for the most part) fully attuned to the essential realities of this life that we are given. Between the two hard known facts known as birth and death lie years of childhood, advanced childhood – widely known as the terrible teens, early adulthood, the lightening shock of actual adulthood and finally the realization of our mortality is presented to us in the form of numerous physical ailments. 

While we may not have any control over the relentless pace of time, there is an increasing sense of recognition of the fact that we actually have more control over the mental and physical states we experience than we think.  Scientific and anecdotal evidence is now more than ever corroborating the age-old wisdom of  “mind over matter”, and it is now up to us to take part in the forward evolution of humanity to a point where through the power of our very own minds and thoughts, we can actually influence the internal health of our body and perhaps even actively take part in shaping our present and future!

Amongst many of the common ailments experienced as a result of aging, trouble sleeping and insomnia seem to be problems that everyone has or will experience at some stage in life. Whether it’s just those extra 30 minutes of rolling around in bed despite feeling physical exhaustion and fatigue, or more serious sleep illnesses like insomnia; disruption of restful sleep hours can be an intensely frustrating experience, and can have far reaching effects on other aspects of our mental and physical health. Some of the physical and mental ailments associated with lack of sleep include fatigue, depression, anxiety, faster signs of aging and compromised immunity as most of our cell repair processes take place during sleep.

It seems that as most of us age and every day worries and anxieties about the past and future creep in to our consciousness, sleep is rendered a distant dream. Considering the modern pace of life and mounting social and personal pressures, the number of people afflicted with sleep ailments is only bound to increase. It is no wonder that sleep medication is stocked like apples across households, and every other day we get to hear of different kinds of herbal teas and remedies to finally get our sleep back- a natural process of our body is thus reduced to something unnatural. 

This is problematic for several reasons. Sleeping pills, which can work for short term usages, actually have a whole slew of negative side effects upon long term use, including higher risk of cancer, amnesia and upon ingesting particularly high doses, death! While herbal remedies are a safer option, their potency is questionable when it comes to more serious sleep disorders.

So what can we do to get our sleep back and consequently improve our physical and mental states? 

Meditation is already widely known to help ease tension, anxiety and depression, and since scientists consider insomnia as directly related to hyper mental activity or stress through out the day, it seems only intuitive that it would be useful for improved sleep as well. There is increasing evidence for the use of mindfulness mediation as a way of treating chronic and temporary sleep disorders. While this maybe a form of sleep therapy too simple for cynics, there is thankfully amazing scientific evidence to support the wonderful effects of meditation not only as a means of heightening our sense of awareness and perception during waking hours but also for getting a restful night’s sleep and treating long term sleep disorders.

The American Academy for Sleep Medicine recently conducted a study on a group of people suffering from chronic insomnia to test the affects of regular mediation on their condition. After 2 months, the scientist found that the patients experienced reduced sleep latency, increased total sleep time, delayed wake after sleep onset and better sleep quality. Not only this but the patients also experienced increased mood stability and alertness during their waking hours!

Other research also differentiates the effects of meditation from those of attending institutionalized sleep education courses. 49 adults suffering from sleep loss were included in a study, in which half of the participants were enrolled in a mindfulness mediation program and the other half were asked to take part in a sleep education course. Interestingly, the researchers found that those patients who were trained in meditation experienced less insomnia and fatigue after the end of six mediation sessions compared to the patients who attended the sleep education class geared at imparting knowledge about habits to improve sleep.  Dr. Herbert Benson from Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, explains that mindfulness mediation has a powerful impact on the physiology of our body. According to Dr. Benson regular meditation creates a reflex in the body to evoke the “relaxation response” which helps ease the mind and prepare for sleep. Dr. Benson recommends a daily 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation, so that it is easy to evoke the relaxation response upon experiencing trouble sleeping.

How can you practice mindfulness mediation?

It is important to distinguish meditation from simply sitting in a relaxed state. Research comparing people subjected to mediation versus sitting in a relaxed position has concluded that meditation actually has a deep impact on brain functions, metabolism and even immunity. In addition, mediation is also associated with increased level of melatonin, the hormone which triggers sleep as well as functioning as an anti-oxidant and immune system modulator. So, how might you use this age old-spiritual and religious practice as a means of improving your physical wellbeing and sleep pattern?  There is lots of information out there on mindfulness meditation including entire websites and YouTube videos for guided pre-bedtime meditation. A lot of these are actually wonderful and it would be quite simple to find one that suits you best. How ever, you can practice mindfulness meditation in a personalized and organic manner by simply following the steps below:

  1. Identify the best time of day for your meditation- early morning or immediately before bed works best
  2. Pick a place in the house, which you know will not be frequented by people. A space with no ambient noise is ideal unless it is the sound of the trees moving to the wind or birds singing. While background music works for some, it can also be a distraction so it’s really up to you what suits you best.
  3. It is helpful to wash extremities of the body almost like a preparation for a ritual as it helps prepare the mind to focus.
  4. Sit comfortably but not too comfortably as you might just fall asleep through the meditation session- while the purpose is to get to sleep easily, the therapeutic effects of mediation will not be activated in sleep.
  5. You can either close your eyes and focus on imaging a beautiful setting of your choosing or could keep your eyes open and focus your mind on a specific point (could be a flower, candle or even just a blank wall).
  6. Start to breathe deeper and with each breath, listen to the sound of your breath- try to just follow the natural rhythm or make up your own consistent breath cycle.
  7. Inhaling for the length of 7 seconds then pausing for 1 second and exhaling for the length of 7 seconds is a particularly healing breathing cycle- give it a try!
  8. It’s okay if thoughts or distractions enter the mind, try to just observe the thoughts as an outsider, or simply shift focus to your breathing.
     
Eugene is from Pakistan and currently working on his Masters of Philosophy from Punjab University. His interest in sleep started when he faced severe sleeping issues. During this time, he started to research sleep on the internet and became fascinated by sleep and how it relates to health and wellness. He is now the author of Sleep Junkie

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