“I can’t get to sleep.
The meeting didn’t go well this morning, and I have to talk to my boss tomorrow. Could I have done something differently, and how will I handle tomorrow?
I just want my head to be quiet.”
Falling and staying asleep can be difficult. Our minds—recovering from a frantic day, and already planning for the next— find no peace.
And yet, decades of research have confirmed that inadequate sleep negatively impacts our psychological and physical wellbeing (Markwald & Germain, 2020).
Even temporary sleep loss is known to reduce memory performance. If prolonged, a lack of sleep can profoundly impact our mental processing and our risk of serious illness, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, and diabetes (Puentes-Mestril & Aton, 2017).
So, sleep is key to an optimally functioning brain and body, but that doesn’t help me lying here — awake.
What if there was a way of improving our sleep and protecting our physical and mental health, without cost, equipment, or drugs?
Well, there is.
A wealth of recent research tells us that mindfulness holds the answers.
In this article, we discuss how mindful techniques and supportive environments improve our sleep. We review tools— including audios, podcasts, apps, and meditations—that can ground ourselves in the present and turn off the night-time mental chatter.
This article contains:
Can Mindfulness Help You Sleep Better?
Mindful practice provides space. It enables us to stand apart from our thoughts; to observe them without judgment, anger, disappointment, regret, or fear.
And yet, sometimes, when we try to sleep, peace fails us. We become too wrapped up in our mental noise.
Mindfulness appears to offer a solution, and science agrees.
Research findings confirm that mindfulness leads to improvements in both the quantity and quality of our sleep. It also reduces the impact of health conditions associated with a lack of sleep, including mental distress, depression, poor memory, and anxiety (Murnieks et al., 2019; Felder et al., 2017; Greeson et al., 2018; Brisbon & Lachman, 2017).
So, how does mindfulness help?
Well, mindfulness works at two levels: first, by lowering base, or chronic levels of anxiety and stress, and secondly, by managing the impact of additional, acute, event-based mental upsets.
According to Dr. Shauna Shapiro—in her new book, Rewire Your Mind—the most important discovery of 20th-century neuroscience is our brain’s neuroplasticity. At any age, the brain can rewrite itself and its connections, and you get to choose how you want to grow.
Learning how to be less anxious and better able to handle stress will improve your ability to switch off and sleep (Hu, Visser, & Kaiser, 2019).
Maintaining an underlying threshold of mindfulness, along with being able to handle upset, will help us protect our sleep from disruption.
What follows is a set of techniques and supportive environments—sounds, exercise, and even smells—that promote mindfulness, and encourage sleep.
4 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Meditating Before Sleep
One of the earliest known sleep studies, performed in 1896, kept volunteers awake for 90 hours.
Participants reported severe psychological and physiological effects, including hallucinations, declining physical strength, and an inability to control their temperature.
However, after a well-deserved rest, all volunteers returned to good health. Even a temporary, unexplained weight gain was short-lived.
Since then, science has continued to report that insufficient sleep can lead to a wide range of acute and chronic psychophysiological changes.
Improved Sleep Quality
A sizable, 2019 review—including 1654 participants—confirmed the value of mindfulness in treating adults with trouble sleeping. Indeed, it recognized, that over time, mindfulness interventions lead to lasting improvements in both the quality and quantity of sleep without adverse effects (Rusch et al., 2019).
Mindfulness is successful by apparently modifying both the software and the hardware of our brain, improving:
- Thought processes that interfere with sleep
- Connections within the brain that moderate rest
Further studies have noted how mindfulness techniques reduce the harmful effects of tiredness and improve poor sleep.
We all know the feeling of exhaustion when good sleep alludes us.
A recent study noted that the use of mindfulness in worn-out business entrepreneurs reduced levels of exhaustion, and improved both cognitive function and motivational energy (Murnieks et al., 2019).
Improved Mental Health
An eight-week course on Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) improved sleep quantity and quality in 213 participants, benefiting psychological wellbeing and stress-related disorders, including anxiety and depression (Greeson et al., 2018).
The authors of the study concluded that benefits from mindfulness interventions were most likely to result from improved cognition and emotional regulation.
Limiting Memory Problems
Research published in Mindfulness (Brisbon & Lachman, 2017) also confirmed the links between heightened levels of mindfulness, reductions in perceived stress, and improved sleep quality.
Increased mindfulness and reduced levels of stress were found to be a crucial factor in limiting memory problems and may offer some protection against dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Top 3 Audios to Help You Sleep
Music, or soundscapes—immersive acoustic environments—can offer a calming environment to promote a sense of mindfulness and mental wellbeing, and provide relief from the day’s stress and ongoing feelings of anxiety.
Indeed, research into patients with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), found that relaxing music at bedtime improved sleep efficiency and reduced levels of depression (Blanaru et al., 2012).
The following musical landscapes may help you unwind and improve your chance of quality sleep and is consistent with research that has uncovered links between music and mindfulness (Diaz, 2011):
1. Studying Music for Concentration, Focus, Reading and Guitar Study Music
Studying Music for Concentration, Focus, Reading, and Guitar Study Music, as its name suggests, is intended as a background to activities requiring focus. However, the ambient music, accompanied by gentle classical guitar, provides an ideal backdrop to falling asleep.
Find it on Amazon.
2. The Sleeping Forecast
The BBC has been broadcasting a late-night maritime weather report, known as the Shipping Forecast, since 1911.
It is listened to by hundreds of thousands of people, most of whom are not sailors.
Instead, people use it to fall asleep, and it has led to an unlikely collaboration.
The Sleeping Forecast combines the peaceful effect of reading the weather in the waters around the British Isles—with such evocative names as Trafalgar, Cromarty, Bailey—with instrumental music, to transport the listener to a gentle, watery slumber.
3. Max Richter’s “Sleep”
In 2015, the BBC invited its Radio 3 listeners to sleep through an epic eight-hour lullaby, recorded live. It began at midnight, with the intention that listeners would fall asleep, then wake up the next morning while the orchestra continued to play.
The appropriately named Sleep, by Max Richter, is an amazing, ethereal piece of classical music offering much-needed serenity.
Find it on Amazon.
4 Best Podcasts
The following podcasts include both mindfulness meditations and experiences in sound, all aiming to help you step out of the daily rush of thoughts, either by focusing on your own body, or the audio experience itself.
1. Mindfulness of Body and Breath
The meditations that accompany the book, Mindfulness: The Eight-Week Meditation Programme for a Frantic World will help you find peace and contentment when it is most needed. The voice of the author, Professor Mark William, provides a warm, friendly guide through a set of ten, beautifully orchestrated meditations.
One episode, Mindfulness of body and breath (linked below), when used regularly, will help you center your mind and prepare for a good night’s sleep.
Find the Audiobook on Amazon.
2. Nothing Much Happens; Bedtime Stories to Help you Sleep
Kathryn Nicolai has created a curiously named set of podcasts, aimed to help you relax, and fall asleep peacefully. Each story is 30 minutes, or less, and aims to take your mind off the business of the day by transporting you to somewhere new and yet strangely familiar.
Enjoy and find the calm you need to fall asleep.
3. Slow Radio
The BBC’s Radio 3’s Slow Radio is a collection of soundscapes described as the antidote to “today’s frenzied world.”
Try out the Flying Scotsman and fall asleep to the sounds from the world-famous train.
4. Sleep Meditation Podcasts
Sleep Meditation Podcasts are a set of nature-based acoustic pieces to stimulate a subjective experience of low-grade euphoria, known as ASMR (Autonomous sensory meridian response).
Rain of Leaves and Deep Dives are personal favorites.
Try some of them out. The white noise rises and falls as you enter a sense of calm that will help you drift off.
Our 5 Favorite Apps
We are never far from our phones. Indeed, it is often the last thing we look at before we turn in for the night, so why not use a mindfulness app to help you sleep?
1. Slow: Sleep, Relax & Meditate
The Slow mindful audio app is linked to the Sleep Meditation Podcast introduced above.
This well thought out, subscription-based app offers you the chance to tailor the provided soundscapes—including crashing waves, jungle sounds, mountain wind, and many more—to help you overcome sleep problems.
Find it in the Apple Store.
2. Anxiety Solution: Calmer You
Find it in the Apple Store.
Headspace is a top-rated subscription-based app that provides meditations—for beginners and the more experienced—to assist with a wide variety of mental health issues including stress, anxiety, along with meditations for mindfulness.
Importantly, it also includes a range of tools to help you sleep better.
4. One You Couch To 5K
While the app does not claim to improve your sleep quality, research has found exercise, and in particular, running can improve the overall quality of sleep (Kalak et al., 2012).
Find it in Google Play.
Find it in the Apple Store.
We have already seen how mindfulness practices can impact the brain, preparing you for sleep, and how a lack of sleep can be detrimental to our memory.
Indeed, several non-invasive techniques are being explored—with varying degrees of success—to enhance such memory consolidation during sleep.
Acoustic and olfactory stimulation—prompting the patient with specific noises and smells —is easily administered, even at home, and research has reported some significant improvements to sleep and memory.
According to research, ‘pink noise’—softer than white noise, and mimicking sounds found in nature, such as a waterfall, or gentle waves—increases slow-wave sleep. A 2013 study in Neuron found that when pink noise was played to 11 participants while they slept, their slow-wave sleep increased, and the results of declarative memory (facts and events) tests improved (Ngo, Martinetz, Born, & Mölle, 2013).
Using some of the apps, or podcasts, we introduced earlier, that play sounds from nature, such as waterfalls or waves, may benefit not only your sleep but also your memory.
There is also the potential to use other senses to boost memory recall while you sleep.
Research from 2005 reports that smells, such as lavender, can enhance slow-wave sleep (Goel, Kim, & Lao, 2005).
Findings from 31 healthy participants taking part in the sleep study reported “higher vigor the morning after lavender exposure,” confirming the increased slow-wave sleep recordings taken. When associated with particular memories or behaviors, odors can also stimulate learning.
The advantage of acoustic and olfactory stimulation is that they can easily be adapted for home use. Using such portable equipment is a benefit because it can be used at any time, even during daytime naps.
Technology can also directly impact our quality of sleep and cognition.
A 2018 study took participants out of the lab using wearable technology that was able to produce auditory stimulation during sleep at home (Debellemaniere et al., 2018). The results showed that the 90 middle-aged participants—using the Dreem headband—increased slow-wave sleep and improved cognition.
The future of neurostimulation systems may offer relief from brain and sleep disorders.
Coffee is a hugely popular way to manage tiredness (Barrett & Martin, 2016).
And yet, it has its downsides. The highly-effective stimulant can remain in our bloodstream for several hours after drinking, negatively affecting our slumber, and in particular slow-wave sleep.
The NHS recommends stopping drinking coffee at least six hours before going to bed.
The ideal nap duration is considered to be between 20 and 30 minutes, and can significantly reduce the impact of sleep loss.
Science has confirmed that napping is a practical and effective way of managing a lack of sleep. This powerful tool can safely improve alertness, reaction times, and the mood of shift workers suffering from sleep deprivation.
Sleep inertia—or temporary grogginess—is common after longer naps, but with practice can be managed and overcome quickly.
Of course, our very own site provides plenty of excellent resources for promoting mindfulness, leaving you in a relaxed state that will improve your chance of a good night’s sleep.
Exercise and nature are proven to improve sleep. Try out the Nature Play worksheet, and head out into the countryside for some fresh air and mindfulness.
As we have already seen, mindfulness meditation offers a practical way to manage daily stress while rooting yourself in the present. Use the Body Scan Meditation worksheet to focus on the body while paying attention to your breathing, and relax before bedtime.
Often, we forget all the good in our lives. Complete, or revise, the Gratitude Journal, at the beginning of the day to take stock of all that is going well in our lives. Then review the list, last thing at night, to put your mind to rest.
These are just a few of the many examples provided by PositivePsychology.com to bring mindfulness and positive psychology in your lives. Try out mindfulness exercises and explore the website further for other opportunities.
A Take-Home Message
We should not underestimate the impact of a lack of sleep.
In the short-term, it can affect concentration and mood. Longer-term, poor quality sleep can be detrimental to both physical and mental wellbeing.
Indeed, with time, cognition and the ability to balance emotions become severely impacted, resulting in reduced judgment, limited attention, failing memory, restricted flexibility, diminished creativity, lowered mood, and a loss of resilience.
And yet, research has shown us that stress is a strong predictor of poor sleep quality (Hu, Visser, & Kaiser, 2019).
By implementing mindfulness techniques into our daily schedule, along with sounds and even smells that promote a sense of calm, we can reduce stress, improve sleep, and protect both our physical and mental health.
Some of the soundscapes available—water, wind, etc. are particularly effective—are worth exploring and potentially tap into some earlier, ancestral responses (Dunbar, Kaskatis, MacDonald, & Barra, 2012).
While we cannot guarantee we get the sleep we need, changing our mental state to one of mindfulness can improve the chances of a good night’s rest. Focusing our awareness on the present, and paying attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them, offers a scientifically proven, safe intervention and with it, many other mental and physical health benefits.
Thank you for reading.
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