Do you ever find yourself thinking too much? At first, it’s no big deal—maybe it’s kind of annoying having those pesky thoughts fly around while you’re trying to juggle your daily to-dos. But what happens if musings turn to worries, and you find yourself stressing out during the day and tossing and turning at night?
If any of those sound familiar, consider trying meditation to improve your sleep and state of mind.
The basics of mindfulness meditation
Take a seat, close your eyes, and focus on your breath; those are the beginning steps to start most types of meditation practice. Meditation, like most art forms, comes in many different styles, ranging from mantra-based chanting ones to more austere, silent kinds.
Currently, the most popular style in the Western world is mindfulness meditation. Inspired by Buddhist tradition but intrinsically secular, this style of meditation focuses on engaging with the present and is one of the most adaptable to different environments. Forget the TV yoga trope of clearing your minds; mindfulness doesn’t expect you to become a blank state of peacefulness. Instead, it strives for a state of relaxation where you are aware of (but not hindered by) your thoughts.
Below is a simple guide, adapted from the Harvard Gazette, to start your journey in mindfulness:
- Begin your practice by choosing your intention. What is on your mind? What is your goal?
- Find a time to meditate. Routine is important. When starting out, try to make it a habit of meditation at the same time. Meditating at night is perhaps the most convenient and great for insomniacs, but consider morning meditation if you want to start the day with intention.
- Take a seat. Find a quiet space that ensures a calming environment. Either sitting on a cushion or a chair, sit up straight but comfortably. Sit cross-legged, in lotus position, or kneel—the most important part is being in a comfortable position.
- Breathe. Close your eyes, allow your body to relax, and breathe deeply. Follow your breath as you inhale and exhale, through your chest and your stomach. Breathe naturally.
- Notice when your mind has wandered. Naturally, your mind may begin to wander. Don’t fret! Don’t worry about what you were thinking about! Simply return your attention back to your breath.
- Set a time limit. Routine is key to a healthy practice. If you’re just starting out, choose a shorter period of time, 5 to 10 minutes. If you’re feeling plucky, start meditating twice a day. Work your way to the daily recommended time, 20 minutes twice a day, or find a limit that works with you and your schedule.
What are the benefits of mindfulness meditation?
Mindfulness, it’s important to note, is more than meditation; it’s the practice of focusing on the present without “drifting” away. Rather than ignoring a heavy mind, mindfulness observes and then compartmentalizes these thoughts and emotions.
Mindfulness meditation incorporates this way of living into a succinct training system that can shape how our brain handles emotional control and problem solving. By being able to filter out intrusive thoughts, these techniques can activate your body’s “relaxation response,” or ability to moderate your muscle control and stress levels.
According to an article by Harvard Health, meditation “makes perfect sense” for treating anxiety by teaching the brain to recognize and decipher out-of-control thoughts. Because general anxiety is often correlated with distracting concerns, sleeping issues, and stress, mindfulness meditation can teach the brain better relaxation and problem-recognizing abilities.
Part of this process can be accomplished by calming the amygdala, the almond-shaped nugget part of our brain responsible for controlling fear and anger. Since the small-but-mighty amygdala is also responsible for your body’s knee-jerk “fight or flight” response, meditation could possibly be beneficial for conflict resolution. An overactive amygdala produces excess stress hormone, which can affect your blood pressure or even your sleeping patterns.
How mindfulness meditation can benefit your sleep
Research has shown that meditation might be able to alleviate insomnia by invoking the body’s relaxation response. In this study, two groups of middle-aged adults met for two hours a week for six weeks. One group was placed in a sleep education class, the other in a mindfulness meditation group. The results showed that the group who took mindfulness meditation had less insomnia, fatigue, and depression at the end of the two months. The study concluded that a key factor of insomnia was stress—or basically, an overactive amygdala.
Even though the amygdala isn’t in charge of your sleep-wake cycles (we have the hypothalamus to thank!), it is much more connected to sleep than you’d imagine. A recent study has shown that sleep deprivation directly affects the amygdala, producing an excess of stress hormone and increasing levels of anger. So, the next time someone asks if you woke up on the wrong side of the bed, be sure to add that your tired grouchiness is scientifically proven.
Find a style that fits you
It’s important to note that as great as meditation can be, it’s not an easy instant gratification melatonin-esque pill to swallow. Rather, think of it as a daily self-care ritual—a way to coach your hardworking brain to process thoughts and emotions without overthinking itself into a gray matter mush.
Mindfulness is a great beginning, but consider looking at other techniques as you continue your practice. The different styles of meditation are all subtly unique in terms of intention and dynamism, and finding the right one can take time. Some have roots in religion and use mantras to invoke spirituality, such as the Hindu Dhyana. Other types are more holistic and restorative, like sound bath meditation, which incorporates gongs and other instruments to create sound vibrations to guide the mind into a meditative state. And, for individuals who want to be more in tune with their bodies, there are even movement-based meditation practices, such as Tai Chi and Qigong, which use physical movements to center the body and mind.
Don’t be afraid to try out different techniques, but give it at least a week-long trial before switching over to a new one. For beginners, consider downloading a meditation app (such as Headspace, Calm, or Present) with a series of guided lessons that can help keep you on track. If you’re a self-motivated person or someone who isn’t about doing things by the book, you might prefer to develop your own meditation practice and carve out your own time. But, remember, intention is key—figure out your motivations for your practice.