As someone who suffers with insomnia, all too often when my head hits the pillow, my brain doesn’t switch off and stop. I know sleep should come, but I just can’t switch off from thinking about the pressing and mundane things, reviewing the day’s events and things that need to be completed tomorrow.
In that moment before sleep should come, I lose sight of the present moment and I get stuck in a maladaptive way of thinking. Slow, deep and relaxed breathing is forgotten. Once that happens, my muscles tense and then – my thoughts become dominated with “I’m not falling asleep…..!” My body seizes up, breathing and heart rate quicken, and falling sleep becomes more difficult.
As a practicing Buddhist, I’ve found that there are many benefits to the practices of mindfulness and meditation. But recently, after a talk at out local Buddhist centre a few of us were talking about difficulties we were having sleeping. Our teacher overheard us and mentioned the practice of mindfulness has even been shown to benefit sleeping. As an example he gave us an exercise to try that night, which I’ve repeated below
- About an hour before you go to bed, dim the lights. Start to wind down mentally by doing light relaxation activities. You’re not looking for anything too taxing to sink your teeth into. Just something you can just “be” with.
- Avoid looking at tv screens, computers, tablets, phones etc. the light from them can keep you alert and awake.
- about 15 minutes before you go to bed, begin a focussed mindfulness exercise. Find a comfortable chair, dim the lights. Imagine the outline of your body and slowly trace it through in your mind. Mentally sink into the chair, feel where the chair rests gently against your body, where it presses harder. Work from your head down, focus on your neck. Down one side, to your feet and then back up the other side. Take about 10 minutes for this exercise. If your mind wonders, notice it and bring it back to the place where you noticed it had wandered. Don’t judge yourself. Your mind is always going to drift. The point to the exercise is to bring it back to the moment.
- Get ready for bed and lay down. Now focus on your breath, slowly, gently, stay in that moment of the breath. In about 5-10 minutes you should notice that you’re tired and sleepy. If you don’t – go back to the previous step and repeat the exercise. This time though – don’t go back to bed until you’re sleepy !
I’ve tried it a few times (I like to try different methods, so I don’t lose the benefit of each practice by over using them) and it really works. The trick is not to fall in the chair – that’s uncomfortable !!!