Mindfulness Practice for Sleep

“And if tonight my soul may find her peace in sleep, and sink in good oblivion, and in the morning wake like a new-opened flower then I have been dipped again in God, and new-created.” – D.H. Lawrence

Many people experience difficulties with sleep.  As humans, we have the ability to keep ourselves awake with internal chatter: thoughts, feelings, and sensations that keep our conscious minds active.  Integrating principles of mindfulness into your regular sleep routine can be a wonderful alternative to turning to things like drugs or alcohol in an attempt to fall asleep.

It is not uncommon for people to feel a flurry of anxiety about the past or future almost as soon as the head hits the pillow.  Rather than using this time as a calm moment to let go of worries, many people experience a heightened sense of unease, anxiety, or even fear when they lie down in bed at night.  Sometimes these fears are even about sleep, “If I don’t fall asleep soon, I’ll be exhausted tomorrow.”  Or, “How long have I been lying here – not sleeping?”

Siegel (2010) points out that “insomnia, like other stress-related problems, is fed by both our fight against the symptom and by other disturbing emotional issues.”  With this in mind, it seems clear that applying a mindfulness practice can be helpful.  Mindfulness allows us to become unbiased observers of our internal experience, rather than getting so “caught up” in it.  It enables us to appropriately detach from all of that internal “noise” while simultaneously being open and accepting (i.e., not struggling against) whatever thoughts, feelings, or sensations may arise.

Sleep Hygiene

Once you have ruled out any underlying medical conditions that may be contributing to your insomnia through consultation with a medical professional, you may then begin to apply principles of sleep hygiene and mindfulness to begin to get better sleep.  It is wise to apply conventional and common-sense principles to your sleep routine to begin:

  • Avoid caffeinated beverages in the evening.
  • Sleep in a cool dark room.
  • Avoid strenuous exercise and emotionally-arousing TV, books, or social interactions before bed.
  • Reserve the bed primarily for sleep (i.e., try to avoid eating or working while in bed).
  • Get to bed and wake up at approximately the same time each night/morning.

Mindfulness is a complementary addition to developing a healthy sleep routine that you can sustain for the long-term.  Once you begin to practice mindfulness when getting into bed for sleep and upon waking, it will gradually form a habit.  The idea is that once you learn to integrate a mindfulness practice into your normal routine, you will no longer have to consciously think about “practicing” … it will have become second-nature.

If you struggle with excitable or anxious thoughts/feelings when you get into bed at night, focusing on your breath can be quite helpful.  When you completely turn your conscious attention to your breath, you are also taking the focus away from the anxiety and the struggle to “get to sleep.”  Notice your breath coming in and out.  Don’t try to control the speed – just notice it for what it is.  Try to say a word to yourself in your mind upon each breath: “In” and “Out.”  The idea is simply to redirect your attention and become present in your body (rather than unfocused and scattered in your thoughts and feelings).

Remind yourself that thoughts are just thoughts and feelings are just feelings.  This does not mean that thoughts and feelings are unimportant or invalid; it simply means they are not more than thoughts or feelings.  There is no such thing as a thought or a feeling that can harm you in any way.  While many thoughts and feelings can seem uncomfortable or even terrifying, they will never do harm to you – they will pass.  Examine them for what they are, fully embrace them as a valid part of your experience, and let them go.  The key is learn to move from a state of cognitive fusion to defusion.

Siegel (2010) reminds us that “the most important principle is to use your time in bed until you fall asleep to practice awareness of present experience with acceptance.  Say yes to whatever arises.  Your mind and body will benefit from whatever happens – whether meditation or sleep.”

When you climb into bed tonight to drift away into sleep, begin to practice welcoming the experience of sleep in a new way.  Sleep is a wonderfully restorative time when our bodies get to recharge in peace.  Practice letting go of the struggle against sleep.  Instead, focus on your breath, detach from your internal chatter, and let go.

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Siegel, R.D. (2010). The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Featured image: Angel1 by peasap / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

1 Comment

  1. Mary Ross on July 24, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    This quote is just beautiful!

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