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We all have them: bad days, stressful days, days that just drain us. And we all know the feeling after. Tossing and turning in bed trying desperately to find some sleep because we know the alarm is going to ring in a couple of hours. For some of us though sleep doesn’t come easily on a regular basis. Too many things are left unresolved, too many things circling in our heads. Fighting insomnia, or having difficulties falling or staying asleep.
Mindfulness can help. Building and practicing mindful sleep habits can profoundly influence our sleep pattern as well as the quality of our sleep.
Why do so many people have sleep problems?
The answer is relatively easy. With increased stress levels in society, especially during times of socio-economic unrest or recession, the percentage of people who are dealing with insomnia or other sleep disorders increases dramatically. Others are struggling to handle personal and psychological issues appropriately.
What are the disadvantages of sleep loss? How does sleep loss affect us?
Worrying about all sorts of stuff keeps us awake at night. Poor sleep and its daytime consequences have been an issue for decades and centuries. Without a good night’s rest we impair our system on a variety of levels. Sleep loss can really hit us hard and right where it hurts.
One consequence of sleep loss is waking up feeling an increased irritability towards all sorts of things that usually wouldn’t bother us as much. We are groggy and disoriented. Our mood dwells somewhere between zero and minus twenty. We feel drained of energy and our wellbeing is in danger.
Sleep loss also contributes to the development of depression. Different studies have shown that the amount of sleep we get on a regular basis highly predicts the probability of falling into a depressive state of mind. Researchers studied a total amount of 15,500 teenagers aged 12 to 18 and their sleep habits. They found that those who slept 5 hours or less a night had a 71 percent higher risk of depression than those who slept 8 hours and more (Myers & Dewall, 2016).
Lack of sleep supports weight gain. Sleep deprivation increases the release of a hunger-arousing hormone called ghrelin and decreases in turn the release of its counterpart the hunger-suppressing hormone leptin. But not only that, cortisol levels rise, which signals the body to create more fat. Additionally, experiments on sleep deprivation have shown that less sleep motivates more appetite and eating. When we’re tired, our brains find fatty foods more enticing.
On top of all of the above, running on not enough sleep puts a serious strain on our relationships. We are more likely to fall into stereotypic and biased thinking because our brain’s capacity to read emotional expressions on other people’s faces is impaired. If one of the partners in a relationship sleeps poorly, there is more tension between them as a couple the next day. We also have trouble re-evaluating our feelings and putting things into perspective, which can make us act irrational at times. We put only low effort into our emotional regulation. Our ability to cope with difficult situations, challenges, or fights in a relationship is dependent on how much and how well we have slept.
What does mindfulness do when it comes to sleep?
Mindfulness reduces stress and anxiety. Mindful exercises put us in a calmer state of mind which helps us to relax. And that is key for falling asleep easier. The goal of using mindfulness to help you find sleep is simply to encourage the natural processes of our body to take their course without fighting them.
By focusing our attention on the present moment, we can be more aware of our own thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations. The mindful approach lets us recognize thoughts as just that: thoughts that come and go. Being present and in the moment separates us from the downward spiral of worries and anxiety about the future, and prevents us from reliving past experiences in our heads.
If we stop controlling everything and just learn to let go, the obstacles that prevent us from falling asleep are gently removed from our system.
On a broader level, mindfulness also improves our self-regulation when it comes to sleep. Our emotional and social wellbeing increases and we develop stronger coping skills. Practicing mindful habits not only before bed time, but on a regular basis, reduces the severity of insomnia and other sleep disorders. It lowers our arousal level before we go to bed, helps us enter a relaxing state of mind more easily and therefore improves our quality of sleep.
Ultimately though, mindful exercises help to fall asleep faster because they help us to let go of our stressors and anxiety triggers.
What are the benefits of having a good night’s sleep?
When we are well rested we have a more positive outlook onto our daily encounters. We are happier and generally display a higher degree of contempt. It simply makes us feel better about ourselves. We are more confident in taking on whatever is coming our way the next day.
We’ll be slimmer. I already talked about the link between sleep and weight gain. But as well as sleep deprivation causes weight gain, you can keep a healthy weight by having enough sleep on a regular basis. Increase your quality of sleep and in turn you’ll also eat fewer calories.
Your memory improves. When we are extremely tired, we have trouble concentrating or focusing. We can’t seem to remember simple things like e.g. where did I put my keys? Or forgetting what you were about to do once you have left the room. Sleep helps our brain to reset and store experiences and knowledge from our hippocampus to permanent storage that is in a different part of our cortex. Sleeping supports learning and remembering.
Who would have thought, right? But that is why it’s important to get enough sleep when you are preparing for e.g. an exam. Your brain needs the rest to be able to make new memories. Sleep strengthens our neural connections and repairs brain tissue. The chances are higher of us solving a difficult problem, if we work on it, then sleep on it. We’ll be smarter and more able to see certain connections afterwards. You could also say that sleep feeds our creativity.
Last but not least, when we sleep, we grow. Our pituitary gland releases a growth hormone that is essential for developing muscle tissue. A good night’s sleep can also heavily improve our athletic abilities and performances. Being well-rested, we have a faster reaction time, have a greater level of endurance, and generally are more energized.
Related Post: Productivity: 7 Tips on How to Overcome Mental Blocks
Mindful Sleep Habits: Mindful Exercises to Improve your Sleep Patterns
At first glance this might not seem to be related to sleep patterns in particular. But the truth is: it is. The more you deal with your stressors during the day, the less difficult it will be for you to fall asleep. The point is that if you focus on your experiences and emotions as they come during the day and practice a mindful attitude towards them, the less those feelings will be bothering you during the night. To reduce sleeping problems it is not only necessary to focus on changing your bedtime routines, but also the way you handle stressful situation while the sun is out.
Mindful Sleep Environment
Set up your space. Your bedroom should not be home to all sorts of clutter. Who likes to go to sleep and the last thing you’ll see is the mess you left on your bedside table? Or who wants to wake up and the first thing you’ll see is a huge pile of dirty laundry on the floor?
Right, so to help you sleep more easily and comfortably it is important to create a serene and peaceful atmosphere in your bedroom.
On average the typical bedroom temperature for people is somewhere between 67°F and 69°F (which roughly equals 19°C to 21°C). But it is totally up to you to what temperature you sleep best at. My personal preference is 70°F to 71°F. Find out what your ideal temperature for sleep is and it’ll help you sleep more comfortably.
It is also crucial to get cozy. Have a firm mattress and comfortable pillows and bedding.
Related Post: How to Create a Mindful Living Space
Some people might find that breathing in certain scents can help them fall asleep faster. Scents can be very powerful. They trigger something inside of our brains by connecting it with a memory, or person. They also have a strong impact on our nervous system. Calming and relaxing essential oils can’t cure any sleep disorder, but they can help you find a better quality of sleep. This will not solve the root of the disorder, but gently treats the symptoms based on natural ingredients.
You can either add a drop of essential oil on a cotton ball and place it on your bedside table or next to your pillow. Or you could spray your bed linen and sheets with a light scent that will induce sleep. Maybe you like to have a diffuser in your room or a fragrant oil burner. They not only add to the room’s mindful environment and decoration, they also keep your room scented for a longer period of time.
Another idea is to take a bath a little while before going to bed and inducing the water with an aromatic oil. This can help you relax your muscles, which will help you to relax in a more general way. One of my favorites (as you might know by now already ;)) is having a herbal tea before bedtime. Teas based on herbal ingredients can have a very soothing and relaxing effect on you.
Some essential oils for stress relief and better sleep are Lavender, Yuzu, Ylang Ylang, Clary Sage, or Jasmine. All of these aromas have been studied in their effects on people concerning stress relief, reducing of anxiety, and improving quality of sleep.
As a starter pack I reccommend this ArtNaturals Aromatherapy Essential Oil and Diffuser Gift Set – (150ml Tank & Top 8 Oils) – Peppermint, Tee Tree, Lavender & Eucalyptus – Auto Shut-off and 7 Color LED Lights – Therapeutic Gradewhich you can order from Amazon (by clicking on the image or the link above).
I really love the style of the whole set. The diffuser blends harmonically into every room, whether it be living room, bathroom, or bedroom. You also have a variety of essential oils to choose from that come with it. I like that the diffuser is wooden and very smooth in its form. I am a firm believer in only buying things that actually fit into your style of interior decorating, but also kind of display the essence of its purpose. With this set you have everything in one. You can always add more essential oils if you want to. I do think though that for the beginning, the oils delivered in this set are plenty and sufficient.
A powerful way to get yourself back into the present moment before sleep is focusing on breathing. During the day our breathing is so natural that we often don’t even realize that we’re doing it. By putting our focus on our breath we take a moment to pause and slow down, which triggers our body’s relaxation response.
Lay down before you want to sleep and gently breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. Feel your chest rising and falling. Notice how the cool air enters your system and spreads through your body, before you let go of all the tension and exhale slowly. I always like to count to three while breathing in and again count to three when I’m breathing out. You can also say in your head “breathe in” and “breathe out”. And when you notice how your mind starts to wander. Don’t judge. Just acknowledge, observe, and then gently bring your focus back to your breathing.
Another version of this exercise is to choose a focus phrase. One of my go-tos is imagining breathing in fresh, and healthy oxygen, relaxation and calm. When breathing out I imagine all the stress and negativity leaving my body. And then the key is in repeating it 10 to 15 times. By the end of this exercise you can feel how much more relaxed you are. Most often though I’m already asleep before I reach 5. 😀
A helpful affirmation can be:
Inhale – “I breathe in calm and relaxation. I feel at ease and I am comfortable.”
Exhale – “I breathe out all the tension and stress that has accumulated over the course of the day. On my next exhale I let go of all the negativity.”
Mindful Body Scan Meditation Exercise
This is an exercise you can either do sitting up or laying down, whichever you prefer. I always like to lay down, especially if I do it in the evening. And fair warning: There is a really good chance you are about to fall asleep midway through this exercise. Happens to me all the time! 😀
Alright so, a body scan meditation is all about noticing physical sensations that you experience in different parts of your body.
- Start by closing your eyes and gently breathing in and out. Bring your attention to your body and how it feels on the mattress. Where does it make contact? Can you feel yourself becoming heavier and heavier with each breath?
- On the next inhale, let’s breathe into the part of your body, that you want to examine. Maybe you want to go head to toe, or you prefer starting with your arms and legs and then continue exploring the sensations of your stomach, chest and head. I think it doesn’t really matter which way you go here. The point is to focus on that particular part of your body and notice the tingling, the tickling, the burning, the heaviness, the lightness, the warmth, the cold, etc. in that specific area of your body. And if you don’t notice anything? That is completely fine, too. There is no right or wrong here. Just noticing.
- You will notice that your attention will shift. Your mind will wander off to no man’s land and just leave you laying there. That is completely normal and totally okay. It is impossible to not have your mind wander off. Again, keep noticing. Try not to judge. Just bring your awareness back to your body. And on the next inhale, you can breathe into a different body part and keep exploring your sensations. The whole point of this exercise is to mindfully direct your focus. The more often that happens, the longer you’ll be able to hold your focus. Don’t try to change anything you feel or experience. And if it is an unpleasant experience, that is okay, too.
- Once you have brought attention to your entire body, gently open your eyes and let yourself keep breathing steadily for a moment. Mindfully enter out of this experience into the next.
If you are unsure of how to get all of that done without taking a peak at a cheat sheet, I hear you. At the beginning it can be a bit overwhelming. You might feel like it is a lot to process and focus on. You might want to start out with a guided practice. There are apps like Calm, Headspace, or Simple habit, that offer guided meditations. You can also take a peek at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center for help. They also offer free guided meditations.
One thing that does keep us awake in the evenings are technological devices. Phone, tablet, Computer, TV, they all omit blue-light-wavelengths and in turn are messing with our Circadian Rhythm (our internal clock). Some say you should not interact with any electronic device up to 2 hours before you go to bed. I think that is not realistic. We are glued to our phones and tablets, and frankly they do can really be part of winding down our brains intellectually e.g. by reading. But some devices do have a night-time mode or something similar that changes the blue light to a warmer red tone. And maybe it can be a good start to just not use the phone anymore when we are getting into bed.
Alright, I do realize that this is a lot to process. But I do feel like I can serve you guys best by giving you a detailed overview of why it is important to have a mindful sleep habit and how to get a good night’s rest, so you can reduce stress and bring more positivity into your lives. Not getting enough sleep can stir our system onto a downward spiral that disrupts our wellbeing and health. It is important to take care of yourself to get a good night’s rest so you can improve your relationships, be happier and healthier, and even improve your memory.
Mindful exercises like breathing techniques with or without focus phrase, body scan meditation, or aromatherapy can help reduce stress. By reducing your stress levels you will ultimately be able to fall asleep faster and more easily.
Despite all of that, a couple of more holistic tips can make your quality of sleep even more better. Lights out while you sleep; no fatty foods, alcoholic beverages or caffeine before you go to bed; or a consistent and regular sleep schedule can all be more than beneficial to your sleep habits.
Related Post: 7 Easy and Simple tips to Practice Self-Care Every Day
What are your bedtime routines? What helps you to fall asleep when anxiety and stress are taking over? Let me know your stories or join me on Facebook or Instagram. You are also welcome to pin this post in Pinterest or share it on Twitter. 🙂
Source: Myers, David; Dewall, C. Nathan: Exploring Psychology. 10th edition. New York: Worth Publishers 2016