People who don't have enough restorative deep sleep can develop symptoms of depression, seizures, high blood pressure and migraines, as well as struggling to function during the day.
Some seek pharmaceutical solutions, but sleeping pills are often expensive and it is not yet clear whether they provide the truly deep sleep we need. The drugs can also be habit-forming or have unpleasant side-effects.
Others are turning to meditation to help them drift off, whether with a coach or one of the many mindfulness apps released in recent years.
"Sound sleep is essential for health," David Behrens, a mindfulness and meditation coach, told Newsweek. "So many people in the 21st century are faced with the challenge of unhealthy sleep, imbalanced sleep or sleep disorders."
Behrens, who was born in New York and spent almost three decades as a monk in India, now teaches those techniques to people with a range of ailments, from mental health issues to addiction disorders.
Most of his clients also suffer from problems sleeping—and he describes mindfulness and meditation as "excellent for helping a person to build back that ability to sleep." Read on for expert guidance on how to get started.
What Is Sleep Meditation?
Hilary Jackendoff, a coach based in Los Angeles, struggled with anxiety and insomnia for years before discovering that a specific guided meditation technique could help her—yoga nidra, also known as yogic sleep.
"No one becomes a meditation teacher because they're naturally chill," she told Newsweek, explaining how she now teaches the methods that "completely changed my relationship to sleep and rest."
Yoga nidra, she said, "so easily addresses the pain points that most people are experiencing on a daily basis—chronic stress, 'overwhelm,' anxiety and insomnia."
The technique "is becoming more and more popular," according to Jackendoff. It involves breathing exercises and drawing attention inward, to help people "let go and experience true, deep relaxation."
"If you're suffering from insomnia, yoga nidra can be a powerful way to 'adult sleep train'," she added. "When we don't get enough sleep, our immune system weakens, our cognitive abilities decline and our ability to regulate our emotions decreases. So, addressing any issues with sleep is essential to every aspect of our wellbeing."
The Science Behind Sleep Meditation
Researchers have observed that practising almost any meditation style typically leads to improvements in the quality and duration of sleep. However, while slow, deep breathing techniques have long been shown to have a beneficial effect on stress and chronic pain, in-depth studies into the relationship between meditation and sleep are few.
It is thought that slower respiration may promote activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. Your PNS is involved in "rest and digest" activities, as opposed to your sympathetic nervous system, which plays a role in the "fight or flight" response in times of stress. Meditation is believed to stimulate the former while helping to shut off the latter.
Slow breathing has also been shown to prompt the production of melatonin, the hormone that helps us fall asleep.
In 2015, a sleep study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, one of the American Medical Association's specialist journals, examined two groups of adults over the course of six weeks. One group underwent a meditation course aimed at helping them sleep better; the other was given sleep hygiene training, which provided them with information on bad habits that inhibit sleep and tips on how to avoid them.
The researchers found that the meditation group had, on average, lower rates of insomnia, fatigue and depression by the end of the six weeks. In their study conclusion, they also pointed out that "standardized mindfulness programs are readily delivered in many communities," so access to them shouldn't be a problem.
How to Meditate to Sleep
Behrens' clients range "from corporate executives to mothers, soldiers to doctors to social workers to students," he said, and he believes sleep problems typically result from "a stress response that has not been dialed down."
He recommends beginning with basic sleep hygiene, such as avoiding screens or bright lights before bed to aid in the production of melatonin. Then focus on quieting your mind and relaxing your body. The final, vital part is breathing.
"If you can get your mind to be quieter, if you can get your body to relax, usually sleep will come naturally," he said.
Jackendoff also points to the difficulties many people have switching off their brains at the end of each day. "Even though we're exhausted and overwhelmed, we just don't know how to release the layers of accumulated physical, mental and emotional tension we're carrying." Yoga nidra can help, she said.
To get started, she recommends the following steps:
- Begin in a comfortable lying position
- Focus on breathing in and out very slowly. You can count your breaths as a way of focusing
- Draw your attention to any sounds or sensations occurring in your body
- Conduct a "body scan," in which you bring attention to each part of your body, allowing them to soften.
With the body scan, Jackendoff said your attention should be "focused on sensing and feeling, rather than thinking. Often, you're guided to repeat the name of each part as well, which occupies the mind, preventing rumination and obsessive thoughts."
Those new to meditation can start by practicing simple abdominal breathing, also known as diaphragmatic breathing. Jackendoff recommends that you place your hands over your abdomen and focus on gentle, deliberate breathing. You should aim to let your exhale be longer than your inhale, and try to breathe smoothly.
"If you have a particularly busy mind, counting the breath can be helpful," she said. "This combination of slowing your breath and quieting your mind creates the necessary conditions for sleep."
Practicing these techniques in the early evening is useful too, she added.
Behrens recommends taking a "breath pulse." This starts with asking clients to focus on their breath and aim to figure out what their breath patterns are. He'll ask them to take note of, for example, how many seconds the inhale and exhale are.
He will then help them develop a bespoke breath pattern, which is suited to their body and whatever issue they're trying to address. There are "subtle adjustments" according to each person's needs.
"You don't control the mind," Behrens said, "you guide it."
So, don't let insomnia control you. Tuck yourself into bed … and take a deep breath.