This January I’m trying to keep things simple. Rather than setting myself lofty goals and a long lists of 2019 to-dos that fizzle out by the end of the month, instead I’m assigning a word or two to use as my general theme for the year (whereas last year was all about small steps and mini-adventures).
In 2019 the main word I’ve chosen for my focus is nourishment. And I don’t mean this in just in the food kind of way, although that’s of course part of it too. I mean a wider sense of emotional, spiritual, creative and physical nourishment, and choosing things that make me feel good and do good.
This brings me neatly to a topic I’ve spent a lot of time talking about over the last few months in corporate mindfulness sessions: sleep.
One of the best ways to nourish yourself and to help you make nourishing choices in other areas of your life is to really prioritise sleep. It may not initially sound very sexy compared to some other grand goals you could be setting for 2019, but if you’re not getting good sleep, so many other things fall out of whack.
(I’m also aware of the slight irony of writing about this having gone through one bout of jet lag on the way to Australia and coming back out of one on my return to the UK. )
Why does sleep even matter?
When we sleep, it isn’t just a case of your body going into limbo for a few hours. Our body and brain goes through all sorts of refreshing, embedding and cleansing processes as we sleep. We cycle through 4 stages of non-REM (aka Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, very creatively called Stages One to Four and which take us from light into deep sleep. This is followed by REM sleep, where our dreaming happens.
If you’re getting the recommended 7-8 hours of sleep, this cycle should ideally happen about 5 times across the night, with deep sleep decreasing and REM sleep increasing as you go.
Source: I, RazerM [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)]
And why does it matter? Sleep is linked to SO many areas of our life, from resistance to infection, weight management, focus, creativity, happiness and even how attractive we look (though this last one is probably not quite so important compared to crashing your car from lack of sleep!).
So how can you get a better night’s sleep?
Sleep and Meditation
There are lots of practical things that you can do, from the time you wake up right through to when you go to bed, that will help you get a better night’s sleep. However one common trigger of poor sleep is – no major surprise here – stress. It’s therefore really important if you struggle with getting a good night’s rest to look at your stress management.
This is where meditation can play a big role. Sleep and meditation are a happily harmonious couple.
I was traditionally what I’d call a VERY poor sleeper. I woke up most nights from 1.15am to 3.30am, pretty much on the dot, my head full of whirring thoughts that grew in their level of catastrophe the longer I lay awake. However after many years of being this way, after a couple of months of regular meditation, I noticed I was sleeping much more soundly. It was very much an unintended consequence, but one that has been a huge benefit (particularly as one of the lesser known side effects of IBS is that it can impact your sleep quantity and quality).
Why does meditation help? Well, first of all, it helps reduce the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which is also a disruptor of sleep.
Stress can also lead to a state of hyper arousal, which makes sleep difficult. You’ve probably experienced this yourself as it’s that kind of state where you’ve got a million things running through your mind as you try to nod off and you just can’t switch the stream of thoughts off. Meditation can help both with your awareness that this is happening, but also provide some techniques that help interrupt this mind whirring.
There’s also evidence that regular meditation at night time can help with the production of melatonin, which is a hormone our body produces to regulate sleepiness and awakeness.
Some types of meditation to explore
Of course, most types of meditation (practised regularly!) can help with stress management, but there are some types of meditation you can try to specifically help with sleep. I suggest trying a few different ones and seeing what works best for you.
Just before going to bed – or even in bed if you want to fall asleep straight away or during the meditation – I particularly recommend doing something like a body scan/yoga nidra type meditation, where you gradually move your attention through the different areas of your body, taking note of how your body feels and (in some forms) releasing tension.
Similar to this is a Progressive Muscle Relaxation technique, in which you lightly tense and then relax the main muscle groups in your body. You can start at the head or toes and work your way through your body.
Calming Space Visualisation
I also like to use a calming space visualisation either before I sleep or if I wake up in the night (which of course I do still from time to time, especially when there’s jetlag involved).
This is literally as it sounds; you bring to mind a place, real or imagined, and normally in nature, which makes you feel calm. Mine is a beautiful island I visited in Japan that was filled with lush green trees, a beautiful flowing river and wild deer. You work through the full sensory experience of your chosen space, from the colours, to the sounds and smells, and let this fill your mind and body with a sense of calm.
You can also use a simple counting technique which in a bit like counting sheep. However instead of sheep, count gently with in time with your breathing, from one up to 100. You can then repeat this a few times if you’re still feeling awake. This counting acts as a cognitive disruptor so is a helpful way to focus away from distracting thoughts.
To get started, I recommend the (free) Insight Timer app as a great place to explore guided meditations for sleep and then you can try out a different lengths and types to see what’s most effective for you.
A few other practical things you can do
Of course meditation, along with general relaxation, is a big help when it comes to sleep, but there are some other practical things you can do. Rather than trying everything at once, pick one or two things that most resonate and explore how they work for you.
Some options to explore include:
- Go to bed and wake up at a regular time, even on the weekends when it can be tempting to lie in and catch up on sleep lost during the week
- Get some exercise during the day, ideally in natural light, to help regulate you natural energy rhythms (aka your circadian rhythm)
- Avoid too much caffeine during the day – and definitely in the evening! (I’m particularly sensitive to caffeine and know too much caffeine makes me jittery and anxious so I actually tend to avoid strong coffee on a regular basis)
- Turn down lights a few hours before you go to sleep to help you feel drowsy
- Find a few regular activities you can do in your evening to wind down, such as: having a bath, reading something enjoyable (rather than mentally taxing or work-related), listening to gentle music, having a cup of warm cocoa or herbal tea
- Turn off all technology at least 30 minutes before you go to sleep (and ideally keep it out of your bedroom if you can) – the blue light that devices like mobile phones emit is a great sleep disruptor
- Keep it cool in your bedroom: a lower (though not freezing!) temperature will make it easier to sleep
And last, but not least, try to reframe how you talk to yourself about sleep. If you constantly tell yourself you’re a bad sleeper, unfortunately this can become a bit self-fulfilling and another cause of stress.
As with so many areas of our health and wellbeing, making small changes over time can really make a difference. Even though you might not notice the effect straight away, when you look back, you’ll start to see progress.
I for one am making sure I turn off any bright lights in my living room by 8pm and a few times a week I’m going to add an extra night time meditation to my normal morning meditation. What could you do to prioritise rest in 2019?
Want to read some more?
Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time by Arianna Huffington
How Sleep Works (a great website with lots of helpful resources and tips)
Melatonin: Nature’s most versatile biological signal? S. R. Pandi-Perumal et al. FEBS Journal 273 (2006) 2813–2838 (includes a short section on the link between meditation and melatonin)