How to Use Sleep Meditation to Fight Insomnia
The practice can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
It's undeniable that the amount of sleep we get each night has a huge impact on our health, mood, and waistline. (In fact, our time catching Z's is arguably just as important as our time in the gym.)
But getting enough sleep (and staying asleep) is easier said than done: Half the population deals with some kind of insomnia (15 percent chronic) and a third of Americans aren't getting enough sleep, according to a report from the CDC. Enter: The popularity of sleep meditation.
While cognitive behavioral therapy is the first line of treatment for chronic insomnia, mindfulness-based treatments are on the rise, explains Shelby Harris, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in behavioral sleep medicine.
"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 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found 20 minutes of mindfulness meditation a day significantly improved 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 with both sleep quantity and quality, says Harris. (Related: All the Benefits of Meditation You Should Know About)
So how does it work? If you've never heard of sleep meditation before, it's important to know that it's not a way to "put you to sleep," says Harris. Rather, meditation helps give your brain the space to quiet down so that sleep can come naturally, she explains. "Sleep comes in waves and will happen when it wants to—you just have to set the stage for it." (Never meditated? Use this beginner's guide to get started.)
The key to sleep meditation is refocusing yourself when you start fixating on your to-do list or other life stressors, which prevent the body and mind from shutting down for sleep, Harris says. "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."
The number one rule of sleep meditation: Put the clock (or iPhone) 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. Being consistent with your sleep schedule (even on the weekends) will also set you up for the most success, she says. (Here, 10 more rules for better sleep.)
To get started, spend an hour unwinding with a sleep meditation of your choice. (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 Gaiam's app, 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. Or, try one of the countless other resources out there for guided meditation to find the style that works best for you.
If you're having trouble falling asleep, Harris also recommends trying this deep breathing exercise to help quiet your mind and body:
Put one hand on your abdomen and one hand on your chest and breathe in deep, making sure your stomach moves more than your chest. 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, Harris says. If you find 20 minutes has passed, get out of bed and continue the exercise elsewhere, she says.