Do you have trouble getting to sleep at night? Are you often tired during the day with an impaired ability to perform regular tasks? Don’t worry - you’re not alone. In fact, about 70 million people in the United States alone suffer from sleep disorders.
Stress and anxiety can often lead to insomnia and sleep problems. Being in a heightened state of alertness can in turn delay the process of falling asleep and cause rapid, anxious thoughts to occur throughout the night.
Our culture of sleep-deprivation is also partly goaded by artificial light, hectic schedules and an addiction to technology giving us more reason to stay awake in an ever-more restless world.
Yet all is not lost! You can use meditation for sleep and anxiety and easily learn how to meditate for better sleep with the right guidance.
Allow the following to allow you to better understand how meditation can improve your sleep and help you relax more easily.
Meditation Reduces Stress and Anxiety
Stress and anxiety coexist closely with one another. Each can be a direct cause of the other and both can be equally effective in continuing a vicious cycle of their unity.
The difference between the two is stress can create mental and physical symptoms in a person, such as irritability, fatigue, muscle pain, digestive issues and, of course, trouble sleeping. On the other hand, anxiety is defined by having persistent, excessive worries that don’t go away even after the stress has been treated.
Meditation is the practice of overall focused concentration. Whether positive or negative, being able to bring yourself back to the current moment can actually address stress.
Studies using MRI scans have shown that regularly practicing meditation can shrink the amygdala, which makes us more likely to respond rather than react to stressful situations. Research has also shown meditation may also improve symptoms of conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder, and fibromyalgia, which are all brought on and exacerbated by stress.
As anxiety can be a more complex issue than stress, it may take additional self-directed work and therapy to completely overcome. However, meditation has been proven to control the symptoms of anxiety, even if practiced in the short-term.
Another recent study showed a single session of a yoga-based meditation reduced blood glucose levels and state anxiety along with enhanced relaxation in patients with type 2 diabetes.
Learning how to meditate for sleep can train your mind to handle stress better and, in turn, reduce the amount of anxiety you may experience.
Meditation Increases Melatonin and Serotonin
Melatonin is a hormone produced in your brain’s pineal gland used to facilitate your body's transition to sleep. Darkness prompts the pineal gland to start producing melatonin whereas light stops that production, which helps your body keep to it’s 24-hour clock, or circadian rhythm. The presence of melatonin in the body plays a pivotal part in sleep maintenance and getting consistent, quality rest.
Practicing meditation is shown to enhance levels of melatonin and its precursor serotonin in the body. Studies show a significant increase in melatonin levels and an improved REM sleep with those who practice Vipassana meditation.
A recent trial also showed how a mindfulness meditation app can be used to treat fatigue, daytime sleepiness, and pre-sleep arousal in adults with sleep disturbance.
Meditation Reduces Heart Rate
There are vast benefits to meditation for sleep and anxiety. Meditation works against the sympathetic nervous system to lower blood pressure and muscle tension.
A study found teenagers who meditate twice a day for 15 minutes each time for four months can lower their blood pressure up to several digits.
Specifically knowing how to meditate for sleep has shown to reduce heart rate and improve heart health in general. Short-term meditation classes have been shown to lower participant’s heart rate and heart rate variation age, which means the heart rate a person of a certain age is expected to have.
Meditation Decreases Blood Pressure
Mindfulness-based stress reduction is a subset of mindfulness meditation. Studies show it can be used to help treat conditions like hypertension and lower blood pressure in those with high blood pressure.
Transcendental meditation can also produce meaningful reductions in blood pressure either as a standalone treatment or in conjunction with other forms of therapy.
A Harvard doctor developed a particular relaxation response technique to keep your blood pressure under control by means of increasing nitric oxide, which helps relax and widen your blood vessels. He found those who practised it for 10 - 20 minutes twice a day for 8 weeks had notably higher levels of nitric oxide in their breath than participants who did not.
Meditation Activates Parts of the Brain That Control Sleep
There’s a peanut-sized structure deep inside the brain called the hypothalamus, which houses a group of nerve cells that act as the control centre affecting sleep and arousal. It forms part of the endocrine system and tells the pituitary gland when to produce growth hormones, and affects the adrenal gland, which is responsible for the flight-or-fight response in the body.
A recent study supports the theory that meditation can help regulate the endocrine system and reduce stress in the body, which in turn can positively affect sleep quality.
But can meditation replace sleep? Research shows certain meditation has the potential to reduce the amount of sleep needed in the long term as well as provide a short-term improved quality of sleep.
Meditation Helps Fight Off Addictions
Tossing and turning because of a powerful, uncontrollable addiction can wreak havoc on sleep patterns.
Most kinds of substance use disrupts sleep-regulatory systems in the brain, affecting the time it takes to fall asleep, duration of sleep, and quality of sleep. People who use certain drugs can also experience insomnia during withdrawal, which fuels drug cravings and can be a major factor leading to relapse.
A recent trial found the quality of life of individuals with substance use disorder can be improved by continually practicing mind-body exercises after intervention. Research of this trial also showed that individuals' substance craving would decrease after mindfulness meditation, and after 8 weeks of training, the risk of relapse would significantly lessen.
In a past study, Vipassana meditation has shown decreases in alcohol-related problems and psychiatric symptoms as well as improved mental state for participants living in an incarcerated state. This is a key meditation for sleep and anxiety.
Intrusive, automatic thoughts often have the power to create the stress and anxiety responsible for keeping you awake at night. It’s possible to rewire your mind with the right tools and learn how to meditate for sleep.
Helpful Meditation and Techniques to Try
Read on for more specific information about the types of meditation mentioned above and their practical benefits, along with additional techniques you can try to help you meditate for better sleep without any hassle.
Meditation is harder for some than others. To carry out the following steps, all you’ll need is to be in a place where you can feel relaxed (with enough space to sit and stretch if needed), a timer and the willingness to try.
1. Yoga Meditation
All forms of meditation unite with the same end goal: to calm the mind and body and achieve inner peace for the person practicing it. Yoga is a “moving meditation” that involves performing a series of postures and controlled breathing exercises meant to promote flexibility and calm the mind.
When combined with meditation, yoga - as well as other forms of physical exercise - has been proven to reduce depression and anxiety.
Shavasana is the pronunciation of the Sanskrit word “savasana,” and is thought to be the bridge between yoga and the more traditional forms of meditation.
The word actually translates to English as “corpse pose”, since the resting and restorative pose is customarily used to unwind and ground the body at the end of a yoga session. It involves lying face-up on the ground with arms and legs comfortably spread and eyes closed, emulating that of a corpse.
2. Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation is the practice of being entirely present with your thoughts. It means being aware of where you are and what you are doing, so you aren't overreacting to what's going on around you.
Practising it regularly can help train yourself to experience certain thoughts in a new light. For instance, you can pick up on an unproductive worry like “I’m going to lose my job if I show up late for work again, ” and recognise it is just a thought, not a fact.
Mindfulness meditation can be done anywhere. Some people prefer to sit in a quiet place, close their eyes, and focus on their breathing. But you can choose to be mindful at any point of the day, including while you’re commuting to work or running errands.
3. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
Jon Kabat-Zinn created the practise of mindfulness-based stress reduction back in the 1970’s by bringing a modern, scientific-based perspective to traditional Buddhist principles of mindfulness and meditation. With it, he developed a flexible approach to reducing stress that can be performed in a number of ways.
Here’s a list of a few popular mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques to help you meditate for sleep:
- Focus Mindfulness
Keeping yourself calm and grounded in the moment with breathing exercises or other stimuli.
- Awareness Mindfulness
Practicing focusing on your thoughts as if you were viewing them from an external perspective looking inward. Learning to view your own mental activity objectively as if it belonged to someone else.
- Body Scanning
A mindfulness exercise that involves lying with your back to the floor or bed and your eyes closed and moving your awareness through your body, focusing on one area at a time. Whenever you find an area that is unusually tight or sore, you can focus your breath on this area until it relaxes.
- Worry or Urge “Surfing”
An awareness exercise in which you visualise your negative thoughts as if they were coming at you like a wave growing larger and larger as it approaches you. When it reaches, imagine you are riding it on a surfboard before it smoothes out into calm water.
You can celebrate your ability to let the emotion go, but acknowledge that there will eventually be more “waves” for you to ride again.
4. Transcendental Meditation
The technique of transcendental meditation involves repeating a word, sound, or phrase in a specific way while sitting comfortably with your eyes closed for 20 minutes twice a day.
With this technique, you can achieve an inner state of peace without concentrating or exerting yourself, as you settle inward to a profound state of relaxation and rest.
Dr. Herbert Benson’s relaxation response technique mentioned above follows the same principle. He recommends practising the technique between 10 - 20 minutes per day to achieve the most effective results in decreasing blood pressure. Here’s how to do it yourself:
- Sit in a quiet place with your eyes closed.
- Relax your muscles and silently repeat a word, phrase, sound, or short prayer of your choosing over and over.
- When stray thoughts interfere (as they will), let them come and go and return to your word, phrase, or sound.
5. Vipassana Meditation
Vipassana is one of India's oldest meditation traditions that was rediscovered by Buddha over 2500 years ago. It is a self-exploration journey to the root cause of all mental impurities, leading to a completely balanced mind brimming with love and compassion.
If practiced regularly, it can promote brain plasticity and teach you how to accept your thoughts without judging them or dwelling on them.
Now that you’re aware of this, keep these practices and techniques with you as you meditate for better sleep and explore meditation for sleep and anxiety.
If you’d like a comprehensive guide to how you can start meditating and its many additional benefits, you can find it in Mal Paper’s introduction to meditation.