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Alternatives || Sleep Hygiene Tip of the Week: How meditation can help

“Touching the Clouds” (2009) by Eddi Van W.

When insomniacs, in particular, say that meditation has failed them, it seems likely that they tried it without first knowing how it is done. If you think, “Well, okay, I’ll try to meditate tonight,” and have never received any instruction in this practice, you will very likely fail.

I wish it were as easy as turning on a guided meditation CD, kicking back and falling asleep. But the truth is, you have to practice meditation for a while in order to get the result that can lead to sleep. Once achieved, then meditation is an outright brilliant technique for achieving sleep.

But it’s worth it.

First things first: meditation is a learned skill. It takes practice. You won’t learn it without taking a class or two (or more, even) or at least going to some yoga classes (yoga was originally designed to prepare its practitioners for meditation).

Meditation is a practice in calming the mind so as to either achieve clear focus or relaxation. The goal in either case is to shut down the incessant working of the cogs of the thinking mind as a way to let go of all that intrusive thinking. You achieve “living in the moment” with meditation, when done correctly. A kind of stillness or emptiness that creates solitude, serenity, or inner peace. I know, these all sounds like very “hippy dippy” notions, but the fact is, meditation works. Not just anecdotally. Research studies for more than a decade now have pointed to meditation as an excellent alternative to medication for those who have trouble falling asleep.

Yet, this is all easier said than done. Insomniacs struggle with a hypervigilant mind; every sound, every idea, every source of light in the room is fair game for rumination. Learning how to shut down the distractions may take weeks of practice.

But it’s worth it.

A yoga instructor I know once described the sensation of sitting in the middle of a busy highway with traffic flashing past on both sides. The goal of meditation is to be still in all that chaos, to let the traffic pass by on both sides and not see, not hear, not contemplate or fear any of it. And believe it or not, you can achieve a meditative state even with chaos wrapped all around you.

Of course, it’s gonna take a lot of practice to achieve this, given the information overloaded, hypersensory, endlessly stressful schedule that is normal life for the average American.

But it’s worth it. (Curator’s note: Yes, that’s my mantra, and I’m sticking to it.)

Meditation isn’t only useful for those who suffer from insomnia, however. You can use meditation to help you sleep if you have chronic pain. Meditation can alleviate symptoms of some chronic health disorders, as well (it is no means a cure, but it can help you feel better). Children, if taught meditation early, can learn to unwind themselves at bedtime and fall asleep on their own.

You can do this any number of ways. This blog post can’t even come close to teaching this life-altering skill, but I’ve provided links below to help interested readers with resources.

1. Use a guided meditation
2. Practice progressive muscle relaxation
3. Learn mindfulness

One thing all of these practices have in common is the use of yogic breathing techniques. You can learn these quite easily in a yoga class or even from an illustrated book on pranayama, the Sanskrit word for “life force.” Seriously, if you do nothing else but regulate your breathing during any of these exercises, you will, over time, achieve a meditative state.

However, practicing these specific forms of meditation will be especially helpful in teaching you to conquer stray thoughts, interior “noise” and other forms of anxiety that can build up during the day.

A guided meditation usually means you’ll be plugging in to a sound source (using earbuds and smartphone, or playing a CD on a stereo, or tuning in to a channel on TV or your laptop). You may hear voices chanting, or music, or a person speaking and giving guidance, or a person speaking in a language not your own, or sound frequencies or effects, or some of all of these things, all together. Generally, you will want the ones with guidance voiceovers at first so you can learn the tricks for relaxing; eventually, you will be able to guide yourself once you practice this enough.

Sometimes there is a visual source to focus on, as well. Staring at a lit candle is surprisingly useful for achieving a meditative state. Since your goal is to achieve sleep, the use of images off of electrical screens will be counterproductive, however pretty they might be, as they emit blue spectrum light, which signals your pineal gland to stop release of melatonin, the hormone which is meant to help you to fall asleep. Staring at a lit candle (even an artificial one) or the gas flames in a heating stove in your sleep space will be far more useful to you. If you are using your TV or laptop or phone to listen, cover the screen so no light creeps through.

Essentially, the guided meditation gives you some ideas and tasks (usually breathing) to hang your mind on until you can clear your head. If you don’t achieve sleep with the first meditation, repeat it. Give it several nights to work; this isn’t going to be an instant fix for most people, especially if anxiety is an issue.

Let’s say that you have practiced yoga for a while but have never taken a meditation course. The guided meditation could be a great entree into meditation for sleep as you will already be familiar with the soft spoken guidance that takes place at the end of most yoga classes. You’ll already be familiar with some of the breathing techniques potentially referenced in the guided meditation, and you’ll find yourself in the “corpse pose” or savasana, a horizontal position of rest with or without pillows to support your legs and neck.

Progressive muscle relaxation is a way to train your focus away from the thoughts of the day and on to your body through breathing and muscle manipulation. You essentially lie down, with arms, legs, hands and feet not touching anything but the bed coverings. After some simple breathing to calm yourself, you systematically begin from one end of your body (feet or head, your choice) and tense small groups of muscles while inhaling, then let them relax during exhale. You work your way through the body to the other end of where you started from.

Infographic courtesy Daily Health Post

Go slow! Coordinate your tension and relaxation with your inhalations and exhalations. When thoughts intrude, learn to let them go.

You may wish to envision the experience as you practice this technique. Some people envision a spiral coiling up over the muscle area that is tensed, then envision the coil releasing during the relaxation exhale. I imagine gold rings encircling the area of focus, circling the area until the tension is released, then moving on to the next muscle group to be relaxed.

Finally, mindfulness is a kind of “check in” with yourself at the end of the day which helps you to reclaim your sense of inner peace. It means you are going to address feelings, emotions, observations and any challenges they bring. What you essentially learn is how to accept this flood of emotional energy that wants to claim your interior space at night so that you can part with it. By accepting it, without judgment, you can achieve a sense of power over, say, those terrible things you overheard someone saying about your child earlier that day. You can say, “yep, that’s what they said, and now I’m going to let my feelings about this, which are real, move outside my interior landscape for now so that I can sleep.”

You do this by imagining these bits of emotional energy in some kind of familiar form (some people use flocks of birds, I tend to use airplanes with contrails); once you “spot” them in your mind’s eye, you give them permission to fly out of your vision. By doing this, you have removed them from your space until all you see is, well, nothing. By no means are these the only ways to visualize this process; some people like using imagery of favorite vacation spots or imagine spaces that are fantastical or even abstract and not real at all.

Also included in mindfulness meditations are breathing exercises and sensory check ins (what do I smell? What do I feel on my skin? What do I hear? etc.) and even some muscle contracting and relaxing. This is a more complicated kind of meditation which I believe is best learned through a practitioner who can guide you, in a live class, through these moments. It’s also something a therapist might be able to teach you as well, since the content in focus is emotional and, often, negative in content.

What meditation is NOT

  • Arduous thinking… the whole point of meditation is to stop thinking
  • Exercise… you should be still as stone while in deep meditation (or, ideally, asleep!)
  • A religious experience… Actually, people achieve meditative states all day long without realizing it–while doing the dishes, gardening, walking or hiking, even standing in line at the store. The idea is not to have any kind of experience except one in which you have achieved quiet stillness within yourself. That can certainly be useful if you want to have a religious experience, but it is also useful if you want to have an athletic experience, a familial experience, a celebratory experience or a learning experience!
  • An out of body experience… you aren’t going to levitate and fly off to another astral plane
  • Witchcraft… no, seriously, some people think practicing meditation is like being a psychic medium or performing some sort of spellcasting or other arcane art
  • A way to get high… Um. No.

So give it a try. You may have to sample various different sound programs and/or classes, you may have to put in a little more effort than popping an Ambien, but the effort is… you guessed it… worth it. Not only for your sleeping life, but for your ability to manage stress, rebound under pressure, focus on the job and live with a solid dose of inner peace, 24-7.

RESOURCES

AnxietyBC: How to do progressive muscle relaxation (PDF)
ASAPScience: The Scientific Power of Meditation (AWESOME and FUN video)
DoYogaWithMe.com: Yoga Nidra for Sleep (free voice-guided meditation)
Free Meditation: Meditation Basics
Frontiers in Neurology: Meditation and its regulatory role in sleep
Huffington Post: Meditation in Action: A 10-step mindfulness practice for better sleep
The Independent: Zen and the art of bedtime: How we turned to meditation to stop the children’s evening tantrums
iO9: The science behind meditation, and why it makes you feel better
Journal of Clinical Psychology: A Mindfulness-Based Approach to the Treatment of Insomnia
Mayo Clinic: Meditation
Meditation for Children: Sleepy Cloud Meditation (scroll down)
Meditation Society: Meditation Station (great overall learning site)
Meditation Station: How to Deal With Pain
Mind & Life Institute: Meditation: It’s Not What You Think (great basic meditation information)
PsychCentral: New Study Suggest Audio Hypnosis Could Help With Deep Sleep
Psychology Today: The Courage to Be Present: How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation (good tips)
Sacred Sleep Yoga: (Great overall website devoted to yoga, meditation and sleep)
Sleep: A randomized, controlled trial of mindfulness meditation for chronic insomnia (abstract)
Wiki-How: How to Meditate to Get to Sleep (covers all three ways to practice meditation)
Yoga Shaastra: Counter Insomnia with Brahmari Pranayam (breathing techniques)

A friendly reminder that links to websites offering products does not imply endorsement by SleepyHeadCENTRAL.com.

SleepyHeadCENTRAL strongly encourages people with ongoing sleep health problems to approach a medical professional to determine appropriate differential diagnoses and treatment. This post, like all other posts on SHC, is not intended to substitute for medical advice.  

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