Most of us at some time or another have experienced difficulties with sleep. Relentless thoughts can create stress and frustration, wasting our valuable rest time.
Are you ready to gently reset your habitual mindset around sleep so you can soothe nighttime anxiety and recover from your busy day as nature intended?
In this article, we will gain a compassionate understanding of why your mind may have developed a reflex for thinking when it’s supposed to be resting. You can discover how to replace that with a reflex for relaxation that will allow you to take advantage of calming sleep meditations.
How Sleep Meditation Can Help Your Nighttime Anxiety
It’s clear that you’re not reading this article because you enjoy endless nights of calm and easy sleep. You may have used all the tips for good sleep, such as
Having a regular sleep schedule
Having a bedroom that is comfortable, dark, and slightly cool
Avoiding caffeine, alcohol, sugar, exercise, and blue light exposure in the evening
Despite all this, you have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep, and you awake feeling exhausted. You can’t switch off the endless loop of busy thoughts that cause your nighttime anxiety.
Sleep meditation can help your mind switch from the sympathetic nervous system that is so necessary for your day-to-day life to the parasympathetic nervous system that enables sleep. A supportive first step in this direction is developing a daily mindfulness meditation practice.
Of course, there are medical conditions that cause chronic insomnia, so seek professional help if your sleep disturbance is ongoing.
1. When Your Day is Balanced
After a day of a super-busy work schedule or big issues going on, you collapse into bed, exhausted.
Your sympathetic nervous system has been switched on all day. It is required in the action-packed world of your daily waking life. Its helpful physiological changes include increases in adrenaline secretion and breathing and heart rates, contraction of muscles, and dilation of pupils.
Now it’s time for sleep. Your parasympathetic nervous system takes over to counterbalance all that high alertness and activity by restoring your body to a state of calm and rest. Your heart and breathing rates decrease and your muscles relax.
2. What Sleep Disturbance Looks Like
When these two autonomic nervous systems are out of balance, here’s what happens:
As soon as your head hits the pillow, like a reflexive action, your mind kicks in with a barrage of relentless thinking. It can be:
Rehashing the day’s experiences
Regrets or anger at something that happened
Listing what needs to happen tomorrow
Creation of possible future scenarios and how you’ll deal with those
Panic or despair at world events
Various forms of worry
Accompanying these stressful thoughts comes a flood of stress hormones and chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that course through your body, exacerbating the feeling of stress even more.
3. Understanding Your Nighttime Anxiety
According to research, stress is a leading cause of abnormal sleep patterns that trigger short-term and chronic insomnia.
Yes, as you suspected, your thoughts are causing you anxiety, preventing you from recovering through sleep. Your mind has you locked into the sympathetic nervous system, keeping you ready for action; ready to fight or flee. You are fighting off the tigers of your day, but all in your head and while lying flat on your back!
4. Why Can’t I Just Switch It Off?
At an earlier stage of your life, you may have experienced overwhelming emotions such as fear or pain. With no role models for processing or soothing these, your undeveloped nervous system may have gone into the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses.
This will have included a heavy reliance on thinking, planning, ruminating, internalizing, and replaying situations in an attempt to try to make sense of your world.
These thinking strategies were all attempts to control and get on top of your emotions instead of allowing them to pass through you. They were the child’s best attempts to soothe the overwhelm of an undeveloped nervous system.
The Incidental Sleep Benefits of a Regular Mindfulness Meditation Practice
Now that you understand why your mind may be locked into action mode, it’s time to find new ways of switching that off and activating the relaxation response that allows you to drift off into sleep. Here’s where you learn to replace the reflex for thinking with a reflex for relaxation.
1. Making the Relaxation Response Automatic
In the 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson coined the phrase “the relaxation response,” a simple and fitting description of the parasympathetic nervous system. He describes it as a deep physiological shift in the body that’s the opposite of the stress response.
He recommends practicing mindfulness during the day, ideally for 20 minutes, to create a reflex to more easily bring forth a sense of relaxation.
That way, it’s easier to evoke the relaxation response at night when you can’t sleep. In time, this reflex for relaxation will replace your reflex for thinking as a defense against anxiety. The key to this is replicated in the practice of mindfulness meditation. Let’s see what’s happening here.
2. Mindfulness Meditation – The Evidence Is In
As any teacher of mindfulness meditation courses will tell you, there are always people who report a marked improvement in their sleeping habits as one of the benefits of meditation.
Studies have shown that poor sleepers who undertake mindfulness programs have less insomnia, fatigue, and depression than those who undertake sleep education alone.
You see, the principles you learn when you practice mindfulness meditation also apply to sleep. It allows the parasympathetic nervous system to activate, non-striving, letting go, and noticing thoughts instead of being taken over by them.
In mindfulness meditation, you connect with your body in the present moment. Usually, through the breath, you scan your body for tension and consciously release that, and you notice thoughts as they arise without getting involved in them.
How a Guided Sleep Meditation Can Calm Your Nighttime Anxiety
Even if you haven’t developed a new reflex for relaxation through your daily practice of mindfulness meditation, you can gain the same benefits from a guided sleep meditation every night.
Studies of sleep meditation provide evidence of improvements in sleep quality, improvements in rumination and emotional regulation, lessening of sleep problems in patients with fibromyalgia, and comparable effects compared with sleep medication.
1. What Is Sleep Meditation?
A guided sleep meditation will mirror the natural surrender into the rest and recovery phase that you’ve been so needing. You’re in for a treat. Here’s what that looks like:
You lie down with your headphones on or your earbuds in and listen to a guided meditation, with someone’s warm and comforting tone of voice leading you into a relaxed state. The background music will be of frequencies specially chosen to slow your brain into the drowsiness of the alpha waves and then the theta waves of sleep.
The guided sleep meditation will usually:
Include a visualization to assist your mind into the surrendering, drifting state
Acknowledge and notice what’s happening with the busy-thinking mind
Replace that with something else
Bring attention back to the here and now, usually through the breath or body awareness
Remind you to notice any thoughts without being taken over by them
Just like in mindfulness meditation, when random thoughts come into your mind at nighttime, you have a choice. You can jump on every train of thought and follow it to its final destination, or you can simply notice, “oh, there’s another thought seeking my attention” and watch it go by.
2. How to Choose a Sleep Meditation
Listen to any of the hundreds of free sleep meditations on apps or Youtube. Find one where the person’s accent, tone of voice, music choice, and length feel comforting to you.
A search on Youtube for “guided sleep meditations” offers a vast range of options for you to try. Here’s a sample from the hundreds of titles:
A spoken sleep meditation with water sound
Fall asleep in 12 minutes
Let go of anxiety before sleeping
Clear the clutter of your mind
A sleep talk-down
The Glass Elevator meditation.
Have fun trying any that appeal to you, but then choose just one and repeat it every night for a good couple of weeks at least. This way, as soon as it starts, the reflex for relaxation will activate. In time, with any luck, you won’t even hear anything past the first few minutes.
Read here for more examples: 20 Best Guided Sleep Meditations To Help With Insomnia
A compassionate understanding of your nighttime anxiety can assist you to reset your mental habits and take full advantage of the many wonderful sleep meditations out there. Your habitual reflex of instantly resorting to the busy thinking mind can be replaced by a reflex for relaxation which will help you rest and recover as nature intended.
Featured photo credit: Polina Kovaleva via pexels.com
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