Not falling asleep as quickly as you would like? These days, there are plenty of guided meditations that promise to help out with that. But while meditating before bed works for some people, psychologist, and behavioural sleep medicine specialist Shelby Harris, PsyD, DBSM, has found that it isn’t for everyone. The Women’s Guide to Overcoming Insomnia offers her advice on when and how to meditate if better sleep is your priority.
If guided bedtime meditations haven’t worked for you in the past, there are a few potential reasons as to why. To begin with, many of them are done via smartphone, and as we already know, clutching onto your devices before bed is a big no-no. It can make it too tempting to scroll through stimulating social media feeds, with the blue light impacting your circadian rhythm health negatively. It is important to limit your screen time before sleeping.
Meditation is a skill, and those who practice it more often tend to see more meaningful benefits. Studies on the relaxation response have found that it produces immediate psychological and physical effects, suggesting that daily practice is optimal to see effects on that night’s sleep.
How Does Meditation Affect Sleep?
When we are stressed, depressed, or anxious, we find it more difficult to fall asleep. In the long term, we prolong this tension as we start to associate bedtime with worries about not being able to fall asleep.
The state of awareness invoked by meditation helps reduce psychological distress and improve emotion regulation. At a biological level, meditation slows the heart rate and breathing, resulting in lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.
According to research, meditation can help in several ways. Sleep problems often stem from stress and anxiety, but meditation improves your relaxation response, and helps with the following:
- Increases melatonin (the sleep hormone)
- Increases serotonin (precursor of melatonin)
- Reduces heart rate
- Decreases blood pressure
- Activates part of the brain that controls sleep
A Sleep-Friendly Meditation Routine
Meditating during the day or earlier in the evening can be helpful towards sleep. The length of time is not as important as the practice itself – your sessions can be short and sweet and still effective. Harris feels that meditation is ‘a muscle that’s getting strengthened.’ With time, you can build up your strength so that when the moment arrives, you are prepared. The same goes for sleep: if you can practice monitoring your mind every day, it will become a lot easier to do it at night, when restless thoughts start to creep in. In addition to making it easier to quiet racing thoughts at night, it can help refocus and reset every morning.
Harris recommends starting with just one minute a day. Find something to focus your attention on, and simply observe. Every time your mind starts to chime in with distracting thoughts, gently come back to the object. Then, by the time you get ready for sleep and think about everything except sleep, you’ll already have plenty of practice coming back to the task.
Peek around your space to see if you have a window that could serve a similar purpose. Bonus: this mindful activity can also help you become more aware of and connected to nature, which can only be a good thing.
Practicing Sleep Hygiene
Healthy sleep hygiene habits can help you get the most out of meditation for insomnia. Start by preparing a calm environment and finding a comfortable position – if meditating before bedtime, this may include changing into loose pyjamas, turning off the lights, and getting into bed.
Types of Meditation for Sleep
Meditation is perhaps best known for its ability to reduce anxiety, depression, and pain. Meditation techniques for insomnia tend to incorporate breathing and mindfulness components, with a significant amount of overlap between methods. Some common meditation methods for sleep include:
Mindfulness involves focusing on the present and welcoming thoughts and emotions in an open-minded, non-judgmental manner. Mindfulness and meditation help bring about a relaxed state of mind that is conducive to falling asleep. This reaction is often described as the relaxation response, or the opposite of the stress response. Mindfulness meditation appears to improve sleep quality and reduce daytime disturbance in people with chronic insomnia and older adults.
Guided Imagery and Music
Guided meditation for insomnia promotes relaxation by asking the meditator to imagine themselves in a calming place, such as a beautiful sandy beach or a forest. *TIP* If you are using your phone or another device to listen to a guided meditation session, you can reduce distractions by turning off notifications, turning down the brightness on your screen, and setting the volume to an appropriate level.
Body Scan Meditation
In body scan meditation, participants are instructed to focus on different parts of the body and note any sensations of pain or tension. This is closely tied to progressive muscle relaxation, in which participants actively tense and then relax each successive muscle.
Deep breathing while engaging the diaphragm is often used in combination with other meditation techniques to enhance relaxation. For example, the 4-7-8 breathing method is when you breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then breathe out for eight seconds. This often helps some people fall asleep in a shorter period of time.
Meditative movement such as yoga or tai chi also has benefits for sleep quality. Though these activities may be less practical to carry out right before bedtime, practicing these activities on a regular basis may reduce overall feelings of stress and anxiety.
The Bottom Line
If meditating before bed is too mentally stimulating for you, push your practice to earlier in the day and see if it helps your sleep at all. Observing thoughts and letting them pass is an essential skill to practice anytime, and one that’ll inevitably pay off on those nights when you run out of sheep to count.