Simple mindful practice for better sleep
Updated: Nov 23
Derived from Buddhist practice, mindfulness in its mainstream usage is the ability to live in the present (rather than feeling caught on the treadmill of life); to actively choose our behaviours with awareness of how they may impact on others; and to be aware of what our body is telling us – and to use that knowledge for our health and wellbeing. Commonly associated with yoga and meditation (which are great ways to capture this sense of connection and awareness), there are many even simpler ways in which we can be “a little more mindful”.
When it comes to sleeping, it makes sense to engage in a little relaxation, but mindfulness asks us also to pay heed to our behaviours (and habits) leading up to going to bed. If we are always on our phone, or thinking about the day gone – or the one about to come – we might not be able to simply “relax”…and in fact trying to make yourself do so can have the opposite effect.
So if you begin to see “mindfulness” as engaging in conscious action, and paying heed to what your body needs, to give you help you sleep try the following:
1. Have a bedtime routine eg:
- Have a glass of water by your bed
- Keep a writing pad by your bed for when you wake in the middle of the night and need to remember something – write it down (try not to open your phone!)
- Plan for the next day if you need to (eg. Clothes, lunch prep)
- Stop drinking caffeinated drinks about 6 hours before bed – and instead have a camomile tea, or warm water, or even warm milk
- Sometimes people find exercising at night helps (others don’t – heed your body’s response to whatever you try), and after exercising, a bath tends to be more soothing than a shower (unless it feels “too long” for you).
- Go to the toilet!
- Set your alarm
- Come off social media/your smartphone and hour before bed – leaving an “out of office” message if necessary (and utilise the pen and paper for ideas should you need rather than the phone!)
2. Try some deep breathing
Simple centred breathing (breathing in for 4, holding for 2, and out through the mouth for 6) whilst listening to nature sounds, gentle music, or even a relaxation podcast can be the final step for restful night.
3. Will exercise – or a relaxing cool down – help?
Sometimes people find exercising at night helps (others don’t – heed your body’s response to whatever you try), and after exercising, a bath tends to be more soothing than a shower (unless it feels “too long” for you).
4. Can tuning into your circadian rhythm make a difference?
On average, a person’s circadian rhythm – colloquially the “internal body clock” – naturally rises and falls in energy within a 24 hour period. However this responds very well to light – especially natural light. If it is dark then our brain signals to release melatonin which makes us sleepy – hence why when a flight crosses time zones the aeroplane lights are dimmed or brightened to try and get your body as adjusted as possible to your arrival time. When there is light – especially natural light – the melatonin stops. This means that if you wake with natural daylight outside, it can be difficult to return to sleep because your internal processes are already signalling that it is time to rise.
- How many hours sleep do you actually need to function at your best? While research would suggest that on average adults need around 7 – 9 hours, children need more, as we age we need less, some people function very well on different patters such as “biphasic sleep” sleeping in two short periods and then napping in the day. “Power napping” for some is also beneficial. When it comes to sleep, I would always say try to get the number of hours that works for you – with the only caveat for those who do have a different sleep pattern to that recommended by the National Sleep Institute – there is no substantial research as yet as to whether this has long-term effects on health.
5. Optimise your bedroom for rest
Are you informally mindful of your sleeping area? Small things like making sure your bedroom is well ventilated, dark enough and at a comfortable temperature will also help.
Alternatively, if you find yourself waking and struggling to return to sleep, try these:
i) Change context!
Get up and do something (ideally not on the phone or computer) such as read a book. It’s best not to associate the bedroom with the feelings of stress that you cannot get to sleep.
ii) Consider altering any napping routines you may have
Research shows that a 20 minute nap in the afternoon seems to provide more rest that 20 minutes more sleep in the morning – BUT this could also be because we may feel tired after a lunch as we digest – and if that’s the case – our bodies digest better when upright, and that same research would also suggest that if you nap after 3pm, it may affect your sleep pattern later on.
If you are noticing that a nap seems to result in waking more often at night, instead try meditation rather than a nap which can be just as refreshing.
iii) If there is something specifically troubling you – try to deal with it
Unfortunately, sometimes waking is a symptom of stress and if this is the case it may continue until the stressor is removed. As difficult as it can be, it may be that you need to consider what actions you can take to address and manage your situation. Once that has happened, restful sleep may return.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; and catch her practical masterclasses Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV & Energy Top Up for resilience For quick tips and tools: click for SKILL PILL and Q&A videos and here for Media appearances. Twitter/IG @draudreyt