You can’t fall asleep, or maybe you drifted off a couple of hours ago, and now you’re wide awake, feeling lonely and a little desperate.
Lying in the dark, you start to panic: You know your alarm will go off in just a few hours and you’ve barely slept a wink. You need to be alert and ready to tackle the day ahead, and you’re sure that without enough deep, restful sleep, you’ll barely be able to function.
Your worry is well-placed, says Matthew Walker, PhD, professor of neuroscience and psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, and director of the Center for Human Sleep Science. He has studied the many ways a lack of sleep affects you. For example, your attention span, mood, and memory suffer. Over time, he suggests, sleeplessness could also lead to unwanted weight gain and negative mood problems. In up to 15% of adults, insomnia causes daytime distress or impairment, with the risk for insomnia being greater in women and older adults.
When it’s happening to you, there’s little consolation in knowing that inadequate sleep, or insomnia, is a problem shared by some 50% of all adults, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. That means nearly half of us have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, wake up too early, or wake feeling unrefreshed even when we’ve had plenty of time and opportunity to rest.
Quality Over Quantity
What does a night of sleeping really well look like? According to the National Sleep Foundation, people who experience quality sleep spend at least 85% of their total time in bed asleep, are asleep within 30 minutes of going to bed, only wake once per night, and remain awake for less than 20 minutes before falling back to sleep.
The National Sleep Foundation notes that most adults from age 18 to 64 can aim for seven to nine hours of shut-eye each night, with adults over 64 needing slightly less. For teenagers age 14 to 17, getting eight to ten hours is recommended. However, the quality of sleep may be more important than the quantity, say experts. Deep, uninterrupted sleep is restorative to the whole body: It’s when our brains process what we’ve learned during the day, storing information and memories. Sleep also lowers your pulse and blood pressure, letting the heart and blood vessels rest. Our mental health, immunity, hormonal balance, and metabolism all rely on getting sufficient, high-quality sleep.
If you don’t meet those ideal sleep targets and tend to wake up under-rested, mindfulness could help you.
“Strengthening your ‘mind muscle’ through daily practice helps you better recognize the negative insomnia-inducing thoughts and let them pass.”
“Mindfulness can quiet the brain and allows for deeper sleep,” says Shelby Harris, PhD, a clinical sleep psychologist in private practice in Westchester, NY. One of the biggest problems her clients share is dreading the night as it comes and growing anxious about trying to make themselves get sleepy. They worry, she says, that they “won’t be able to do X, Y, Z the next day” if they don’t sleep. “That thought process makes you stressed, worrying—often unnecessarily—about the next day’s effects. That cycle worsens sleep,” says Harris.
Mindfulness can set the stage for sleep by allowing you to be more aware of your thoughts and to be able to let go of those anxieties instead of getting stuck on them, says Harris. “Strengthening your ‘mind muscle’ through daily practice helps you better recognize the negative insomnia-inducing thoughts and let them pass.”
Not only does it prepare your mind for drifting off to sleep, mindfulness meditation can also significantly improve sleep quality, says Heather L. Rusch, PhD candidate and research fellow at the National Institute of Nursing Research, National Institutes of Health. She reviewed 20 studies that evaluated the effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality and published her findings in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences in 2018.
Mindfulness, Rusch learned, beat standard insomnia treatments, such as suggestions for improving sleep hygiene (eschewing TV and other screens before bedtime is a prime one). And the benefit continued “both immediately after treatment as well as 5 to 12 months later,” she says.
However, because mindfulness is a relatively new concept in insomnia research, we don’t yet know how long you need to practice before achieving better sleep. “We simply don’t have that information yet,” says Harris.
“What is key is that you practice mindfulness long enough to become aware of the thought processes you have that may get in the way of your sleeping,” says Harris. “Your daily routine practice can be short or long—it really varies! What’s important is the ability to be aware of your thoughts.” →
A surprising new finding about what happens in the brains of people who have chronic insomnia was revealed in a 2019 study by sleep expert Jason C. Ong, PhD, associate professor of neurology (Sleep Medicine), Northwestern Medicine, Feinberg School of Medicine.
Setting out to learn about the potential effects of mindfulness meditation on brain activity while people sleep, Ong discovered that after participating in an eight-week mindfulness course, people experienced an increase in brain activity that is usually linked to disturbed sleep. But the participants reported that their sleep during the study had improved.
“We are still trying to understand this paradoxical finding, but one interpretation is that mindfulness actually stimulates the brain during sleep without the anxiety or negative emotions that typically come with insomnia,” Ong tells Mindful. Mindfulness can boost sleep quality, Ong continues, because it helps you feel kindness toward yourself and let go of habitual rumination—including the worry that your life will fall apart if you don’t get a prescribed amount of sleep.
Dos & Don’ts for Quality Sleep
If disturbed sleep is becoming your new normal, you need a reliable way out. Preferably a natural one, like mindfulness, because sleeping pills can be “blunt instruments that do not produce naturalistic sleep,” says Walker.
Maintaining a regular, daytime mindfulness meditation practice will help you sleep better and longer at night. However, it’s best not to think of it as a panacea if you wake up at 3 am. In this case, you might try a body scan while in bed, to relax any tension you may be holding in your body.
Maintaining a regular, daytime mindfulness meditation practice will help you sleep better and longer at night.
And if sleep still doesn’t arrive, you can do a mindfulness practice, but get out of bed and do it elsewhere. Staying awake in bed for longer than about 20 minutes creates an association that the bed is for other activities as well as sleep, says Harris. The point isn’t to fall asleep in the midst of your practice, but afterward when you return to bed.
Another expert tip: Don’t rely on those ubiquitous sleep apps. “A lot of people use them as a sedative, but that’s not ideal,” says Harris. “You shouldn’t need to rely on anything to fall asleep—what happens if one day your phone is out of juice or the app doesn’t work?”
When you need help drifting off in the wee hours, don’t try to force it. As every insomnia sufferer knows, the more you lie there trying to make yourself sleep, the more it won’t happen. Notice your worries about being unable to sleep, your noisy mind, and visualize them floating by. The more you do this and accept that you cannot force sleep, the easier sleep will come.
Finally, don’t watch the clock. Trying to calculate how many hours you’ve been awake, or how many more hours you have left to sleep, only worsens insomnia, notes Harris. Set an alarm for your wake time and don’t look at it until it goes off in the morning.