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  • Paula Cristina Azevedo, PhD

Sleeping is mindful

Recently, I was reminded of a great quote from the Dalai Lama, “Sleep is the best meditation.” I love that quote. He’s such a practical man, right? Sleep deprivation is something a majority of Americans suffer from and are continue to be warned about the dangers of sleep deprivations. But, how many of us wear our sleepiness as a badge of honor? Like, “I have so much going on in my life that I just don’t have time to sleep.” Issues with sleep aren’t just impacting adults, but also children and teenagers. I can’t tell you how often I see students heads down on their desks as I make my observation rounds.

In our modern culture where we are connected 24/7 and have access to communication and entertainment all day and night it’s sometimes hard to maintain good sleeping habits. The average adult needs about 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night. Sleep is incredibly important and essential for good mental and physical health. Sleep helps regulate hormones, glucose and metabolism. Additionally, having healthy sleep patterns improves socio-emotional intelligence, cognitive and physical performance. It also support a healthy cardiovascular and immune systems. Finally, sleep improves overall mood.

Even though sleep is biologically necessary for humans, in recent decades sleep has been treated as an inconvenience. At least 40 million American adults suffer from sleep disorders and 60% of adults reported having problems sleeping a few times a week (National Sleep Foundation). In the same National Sleep Foundation report 69% of children and teenagers reported suffering from sleep issues a few nights a week. So, what is causing this sleep crisis?

There are several factors that are playing a role in poor sleep habits, such as environmental factors. More people are living in cities and suburbs, which have a high concentration of noise and artificial light pollution. Excess indoor lighting and noise can disturb our natural sleep patterns. Sleep is linked to a spike in melatonin, which is switched on by darkness, but with more artificial lighting we have been able to extend our days longer.

Technology can also interrupt our sleep, such as having the television on in the bedroom or even using electronic devices before bedtime or even having the devices in the room. Devices can be extremely disruptive at night for a couple of reasons. First, devices continue to alert us by buzzing, flashing banners, and making sounds every time a friend sends us a message, there’s breaking news, or the weather is about to change. These alerts can quickly disrupt our sleep. I’ve definitely felt the jolt of an alert on my phone as I was about to fall asleep. It’s not only annoying, but dangerous to our health if this is a constant distraction every night. In addition, scientists are warning us of the impact of smartphone and tablets’ blue lights have on our sleep patterns. Though blue wavelengths are harmless during the day, it can greatly disrupt our sleep patterns at night by exposing us to too much light at night, impacting the melatonin levels and keeping us alert even when we’re supposed to start to wind down for the evening (Harvard Health Publishing, 2018 ).

Finally, our lifestyle can also impact our sleeping habits, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, drinking caffeinated beverages, lack of physical activity, and eating large meals at night. However, the number one cause of sleep deprivation is chronic stress. It’s really interesting that as we dig a little deeper about Western chronic health problems we begin to see a pattern. The majority of our health issues today can be linked back to chronic stress, and sleep is just another victim of our stressful lifestyles. Stress can’t be avoided and some stress is healthy and normal. Stress can motivate us to meet a deadline, it can get us out of harmful situations, or quickly respond to an emergency. However, chronic stress can have a long-lasting impact on our health and sleep patterns, which can be dangerous for our mental and physical health.

How can you improve your sleep habits?

Many people rely on prescription or over the counter drugs to solve the problem; however, there are some really simple solutions to get a better night sleep. Here’s a list of recommendations by the American Psychological Association:

  1. Keep a regular sleep schedule, even on the weekends

  2. Avoid smoking, alcohol, caffeine, and heavy meals especially 4 hours prior to bedtime

  3. Exercise regularly

  4. Minimize noise, light or excessive temperatures around bedtime and in your bedroom

  5. Incrementally go to bed earlier each night if you have to wake up early and struggle each morning not to hit the snooze button.

Just a side note about natural sleep patterns- scientists are also recognizing that humans may actually have bimodal sleep patterns, or two bouts of sleep interrupted by a short episode of waking in the middle of the night (Scientific American, 2011). So, if you wake up in the middle of the night, fall back asleep, and wake up in the morning feeling refreshed then you probably don’t have an issue with sleep, but rather maintain a sleep pattern from our hunting and gathering ancestors.

Mindful sleep habits

In addition to adopting a regular sleep schedule and improving your overall health habits, mindfulness and meditation practices can support a better sleep. In one study researchers divided 49 middle-aged and older adults who had issues sleeping (Black, et al., 2015). They were split into two groups: one group completed a mindfulness program teaching meditation and mindfulness exercises. The other group completed a sleep education class, which solely focused on sleep habits. Each group met for the exact amount of time and the same length of time. After the program was complete the researchers found that the mindfulness group had less insomnia, fatigue, and depression. It appears that meditation improved sleep quality. In another randomized study, researchers studied if mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) was a treatment for insomnia like prescription sleep aids(Gross, et al, 2011). Participants were randomly assigned to participate in the MBSR program or take pharmaceutical sleep aids. The results indicated that participants of the MBSR program significantly improved in total hours and quality of sleep and had equivalent results to the group who took prescriptions.

Why does meditation and mindfulness support better sleep?

Meditation is the training of the mind it helps us recognize when we are caught up in a thought or return to the same old stories and worries. Once we recognize a thought we can sit with it and not allow ourselves to get attached or get caught up in the thought. So, instead of reacting to thoughts, we respond to it by observing the thought or memory with compassion towards ourselves and others. This type of practice can relieve stress, which is a common issue with people who suffer from insomnia. So, at night when thoughts are whizzing by you can recognize what’s occurring and instead of attaching to the thought, mindfulness teaches us to recognize the thought as a thought and refocus on the present moment.

Mindfulness practices to improve sleep

In addition to daily meditation and mindfulness practice you can include some additional practices before bedtime to support and improve your sleep.

Calm the mind

You can stop checking email or reading/watching the news just before you go to bed. Mindfully ease your body into a state of restfulness. Many times our minds can’t rest because we’re trying to hold on to too much information, such as the ever growing to-do lists. If you find yourself running your to-do list in your head as you’re trying to fall asleep start writing your to-do list at the end of the day so you’re brain can rest and not hold onto all the activities and appointments that you have to keep the next day. Meditation before bedtime can also help calm the mind. Find a quiet area in your room and for 10-20 minutes meditation focusing on the breath and allowing thoughts to float right by not allowing yourself to attach to the thoughts, memories, or running to-do lists.

Calm the body

It’s best to do slow-paced exercises in the evening and Yin Yoga is a great way to restore the body. Yin yoga is not only slower, but required that the yogi remain in a pose for at least 45 seconds and up to 5 minutes. In yin yoga one comes into the pose at an appropriate depth for the body, remain still, and hold the pose.This type of yoga calms and balances the mind and body, reduces stress, and it just really great for the body.

Mindful breathing can also be very relaxing and restorative. I love inhaling and exhaling for the same number of counts. For example, when I inhale I count (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), and when I exhale I count again and see if my inhalations and exhalations are equal lengths. If they are not then I continue to practice and try to get the inhalations and exhalations at equal lengths. After a few rounds I then just breathe naturally. Another good breathing exercise is deep inhalation and filling the lungs with as much as a possible, even attempting to take an extra sip of air, holding the breath for a few seconds and then slowly releasing the breath and lightly squeezing the abdomens allowing all the air to exit the body. Doing this a few times and then returning to the natural breath practice.

Mindful evening routines

You may also try to incorporate mindful evening routines as you prepare for bedtime, such as showering, brushing your teeth, putting on pajamas, etc. Try to do these activities mindfully by being fully present in the action and in the moment. For example, as you brush your teeth sense how the brush feels against your teeth, gums, and tongue. What does the toothpaste taste like, smell like, feel like as it changes form from a gel to foam in your mouth. How do the bristles of the toothbrush feel like? What sounds do the bristles make as they brush against your teeth? Be fully embodied in the moment and every move you make. You’ll be amazed at how much you’ve missed and what it takes to just brush your teeth. You’ll appreciate this daily routine so much more. Also, as the sun sets begin to lower the lights in your house a little or have fewer lights on as your bedtime approaches.Walk around the house a little slower, more mindfully, feeling the bottom of your feet on the floor. Finally, turn off electronics. This is a hard one and one that I am guilty of doing. I will watch tv before I go to bed, because it relaxes me, especially after a long day at work. I also will frequently read news articles and scan my social media feeds in bed. This is very unhealthy and can disrupt sleep, because of the light electronic devices give off. So, if you feel like you’re going to be tempted by your smart phone it might be good idea to leave it outside your bedroom, especially if the alerts and text messages disturb your sleep at all hours of the night.

I hope these mindful tips on how to improve your sleep are helpful. These tips might be something you’d like to share with colleagues, friends, and even students. Try them out and share on Facebook if your sleeping patterns have improved. I can’t wait to hear about it.

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Black, D. et. al (2015). JAMA Internal Medicine, 175(4), p. 494-501.


Gross, C. R. et al.(2011). Mindfulness-based stress reduction versus pharmacotherapy for chronic primary insomnia: a randomized controlled clinical trial. Explore, 7(2), p. 76-87. doi: 10.1016/j.explore.2010.12.003.


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