Meditation and Insomnia: at the crossroads of sleep and mindfulness
Have you ever struggled with sleeplessness? It is estimated that at least 10% of the population suffers from symptoms of insomnia. There are two main types of insomnia: acute and chronic. Acute insomnia lasts up to a few weeks, then subsides; the chronic type is characterized by loss of quality sleep for 3 nights or more per week for one month or longer. Insomnia can be caused by a variety of reasons, including as stress, anxiety, depression, illness and environmental triggers (such as heat or noise). Luckily, insomnia meditation techniques can help greatly with this exasperating condition.
Meditation for insomnia
There’s been a lot of research recently on how meditation impacts the quality of sleep. For example, one 2012 study affiliated with UCLA’s Keck School of Medicine focused on adults 55 years old and above, as older adults are particularly susceptible to sleeplessness. The 49 participants were divided into two groups. One group went through a thorough mindfulness-awareness program while the other completed an alternative sleep education program. The group that practiced mindfulness meditation reported less fatigue, insomnia and depression than the second group. The author concluded that structured mindfulness meditation programs reliably provided sufferers with relief, at least in the short term.
It would seem that the link between meditation and better sleep is due to the relaxation response triggered by meditation. Indeed, people who meditate regularly often find that the relaxation response may come so easily that it’s hard for them to remain alert and focused. In group meditation settings especially, yawning is highly contagious. Resisting the urge to nod off is part of the balancing act of meditation practice: not too relaxed, not too rigid.
There are different kinds of meditation that can help with insomnia. Relaxation meditation and guided meditation for sleeping, which often overlap, are soothing and easy to follow. They can even be practiced when you’re lying down in bed. Alternatively, mantra meditation gives your mind a positive syllable or phrase to hold onto, and this can short-circuit the thoughts that are keeping you awake.
Interestingly, mindfulness meditation, in which meditators learn to acknowledge thoughts, sensations and emotions as they arise and then let them pass by, has been found to promote better quality sleep even when the practice session takes place earlier in the day.
In his book “Full Catastrophe Living,” mindfulness authority Jon Kabat-Zinn explains that the seven pillars of mindfulness practice are non-judging, patience, beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance and letting go. It’s easy to imagine how the qualities developed through meditation might be beneficial all the time, including when it’s time to tuck in.
More about mindfulness meditation for insomnia
The National Sleep Foundation also has good things to say about meditation. On their website, mindfulness is recommended because:
- It’s safe.
- It can be used with other sleep techniques.
- There are multiple health benefits.
- It’s easy.
There is actually a specific therapy called Mindfulness-Based Therapy for Insomnia, also known as MBT-I. With MBT-I the goal is to foster awareness of how the mind works and how to work with the mental and physical states associated with insomnia. This means that along with the inability to fall asleep at night and daytime fatigue, insomnia has unpleasant secondary effects like frustration, despair and a feeling of not being in control. Mindfulness helps individuals who experience these feelings accept and distance themselves from them.
Other benefits of mindfulness meditation for insomnia
- It enhances the brainwaves that facilitate sleep
Scientific research has shown that there’s an increase in alpha, delta and theta brainwaves when we meditate. These brainwaves are responsible for inducing deep relaxation and sleep. At the same time, meditation reduces the production of undesirable agitation and alertness-related beta brainwaves. As a result, we wake up feeling refreshed the next morning.
- Bringing us to the present moment
Tokpa Korlo, a meditation teacher on Mindworks, explains that meditation plays a vital role in helping us overcome our fear of now. When we meditate, we learn to let go of our habitual fretting about the past or worrying about what might happen tomorrow. We discover the richness and power of the present moment and realize that the best thing we have is now.
- Boosting melatonin
Melatonin, a hormone that controls the states of sleep and wakefulness, is produced by the pineal gland. Melatonin peaks at bedtime and helps us sleep soundly at night. Scientists have discovered that evening meditation significantly increases melatonin production, leading to better sleep.