We're always looking for ways to step up our sleep game, whether it's finding the best foods to eat before bed, natural sleep aids to help us doze off faster, or positions to help us snooze more soundly. After all, the amount of shut-eye we get has a huge impact on our health, mood, and waistline. Our time catching Z's is arguably just as important as our time in the gym. So when we heard about the practice of meditation for better sleep, we were intrigued.
Contrary to what you might believe, meditation is not a way to "put you to sleep," explains Shelby Harris, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in behavioral sleep medicine. She recently created a sleep meditation series for Gaiam's new app, Meditation Studio. According to Harris, meditation helps "set the stage for sleep," by giving your brain space to quiet down. (Never meditated? Use this beginner's guide to get started.)
We get it—being able to focus on unwinding and shutting off distractions is incredibly difficult—it's why half the population deals with some kind of insomnia (15 percent chronic). Not to mention even after dozing, a third of Americans aren't getting enough sleep, according to a new report from the CDC.
A new method of insomnia treatment is looking at a mindfulness-based component to the typical cognitive behavioral therapy, Harris explains. "I find that when my clients use mindfulness, it also helps them with stress and anxiety—two of the biggest reasons that people have trouble sleeping at night," she says. It's backed by science, too—a recent study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day significantly improved the sleep quality in adults with moderate sleep disturbances. Even if you don't suffer from insomnia, meditation before bed (and throughout the day) can help give you better Z's in quantity and quality, says Harris.
The key is mastering the elusive mental muscle of mindfulness—which Harris describes as focusing on one thing in the moment and refocusing yourself without judgment as your mind wanders.
"A lot of people think they should be able to focus completely—that's not the skill," she says. "The mind is going to wander; that's normal. The skill is telling yourself to get back on task when your mind wanders, and being kind to yourself." Sure, redirecting your mind to falling asleep is easier said than done when you're thinking about your to-do list. When you're trying to rest, these worries cause your mind and body to tense, making sleep more elusive.
Which brings us to the aspect of letting go. The more you can forget what's going to happen the next day, the easier it will be to sleep, Harris says. If you're trying to force sleep to happen, it never will. Sleep comes in waves and will happen when it wants to—you just have to set the stage for it, she explains.
So, how do you get started? Rule number one of sleep meditation: Put the clock away! If it's 3 a.m. and you can't sleep, counting the hours until you have to wake up will only make you more tense and stressed, Harris says.
Next (you've heard this one before) try to be consistent with your schedule and get up at the same time every day—even on the weekends. If you can be consistent your body will start to follow suit. (Here, 10 more rules for better sleep.)
Lastly, try to spend an hour before bed unwinding with meditation to help focus the brain. (Of course, using electronics before bed is generally a no-no, but you can easily put on the meditation exercise and then turn off your phone screen, Harris says.) Harris' meditations, available through Meditation Studio (which features over 160 guided meditations across a variety of styles, teachers, and traditions) include breathing and visualization exercises as well as a meditation designed to ease tension in your muscles and bring a sense of relaxation.
Here's a deep breathing exercise to help quiet your mind and body, bring a sense of calmness, and help you drift off to sleep.
Put one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest and start breathing in deep, making sure your stomach moves more than your chest. (It takes some practice!) Count up to 10 and back to one. The trick is, you can't go to the next number unless you're able to focus on it completely. If your mind starts to wander you need to stay on that number until you clear your mind. Believe it or not, this can take 10 to 15 minutes because our minds will wander so much. Don't stay in bed for more than 15 to 20 minutes. (If you're doing this endlessly get out of bed and do it somewhere else!)
(Got the meditation bug? Check out 15 more sources for guided meditation.)