The Land of Nod

Improve your life by getting the sleep you need.

The Mindful Way to Fall Asleep

How you can use mindfulness to help quiet the mind and fall asleep faster.

Mindfulness
I commonly hear patients tell me that when they get in bed at night to try and sleep, their brains don't stop. They're thinking of the day, what didn't get done, what needs to get done and any other pressing or mundane issues in life. The "mental chatter" that occurs makes it harder for sleep to come. What gets lost is the ability to be in the present moment, focusing on the breath, relaxing and letting sleep come.

With its roots in Buddhist meditation, mindfulness encourages one to take a non-judgmental stance in life —one that accepts the present as it is and does not ruminate on the past or future. Mindfulness has been adopted in clinical psychology and has been shown to improve depression and anxiety.

When we lose awareness of the present moment, our minds have a tendency to habitually get stuck in maladaptive ways of thinking. Mindfulness can help us step back, be in the present and recognize some of these habits that take us off track and further away from our overall goals in life, including getting a better night’s sleep.

Newer models of insomnia treatment are beginning to incorporate meditative components. During mindful meditation, the mind is focused on the act of meditation itself—being in the moment, inhaling, exhaling or repeating a certain mantra—to bring about relaxation. Mindfulness allows us to have more present-moment awareness and not get stuck on thoughts that take us out of the moment.

Here's some tips to start your mindfulness journey today:

1. Strengthen your mindfulness "muscle." It is very difficult to just "be mindful" at all times. Aim for just a few seconds of mindfulness at a time, working your way up to five, then 10 minutes. It is really tough to do and is almost like a mental muscle that needs to get strengthened over time. When it comes to sleep, being mindful can help us from getting stuck on rumination in bed, quiet our minds and bring about relaxation...and eventually sleep.

2. Find the mindful in the mundane. Anything can be a mindfulness exercise. For example, if you're going to get a manicure and it is time for the hand massage, try to be in the moment for that minute, focusing solely on the relaxation and calming sensations that the massage brings. If your mind wanders to think about anything and everything else you have going on in life—e.g. "I forgot to pick up the dry cleaning!" or "This massage should be so easy to focus on, why can't I do it?!"—notice that your mind wandered without judging yourself and get your mind back on track to the massage. Your mind might wander 15 times during the massage, but that's fine. The real skill is in being able to non-judgmentally notice when your brain is wandering and refocus yourself back on the present moment.

3. Eat mindfully. We eat multiple times a day, but typically we are eating while talking with others, reading a book, doing work or watching TV. To practice mindful eating, first sit down at the table in front of your food. Notice the color, texture, shape and smell. Simply observe. Once you take your first bite, notice where in your mouth the food is now located, what do you taste, smell? What textures do you feel? Silently labeling each observation, e.g. smooth, sweet or crunchy, can help ground you and keep you in the present. If your mind wanders off task, simply notice you wandered and non-judgmentally get back on track.

4. Practice! With more practice comes more ability to use it in more challenging, varied and/or stressful circumstances. The more you practice, the better

5. Be patient! We are a society that values multi-tasking (which isn't always the best strategy to be efficient). Strengthen your mindfulness muscle and you might even find that you're more efficient and streamlined in what you normally do, possibly even getting things done faster since you're not wandering from thought to thought.

Take a break from whatever you're doing right now and practice being mindful for just one minute. Hopefully, with practice, you'll notice the mental chatter decrease and fall asleep faster. 

Shelby Harris, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center.

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