Anxiety and stress may feel like a uniquely 21st-century issue — especially this past year — but in reality, we’ve been dealing with it since humanity first climbed out of the trees. Over the centuries, a variety of antidotes for stress have surfaced, but few have been as long-lasting or as well regarded as meditation.
“Meditation” is a blanket term that refers to a broad range of practices found in numerous cultures dating back thousands of years. Meditation has many uses: it is a religious practice for some faiths, helps those coping with illness, and encourages physical and mental wellness.
Many individuals use meditation to encourage deep and healthy sleep patterns without the use of drugs. In fact, it’s one of the healthiest methods for supporting quality sleep.
What is meditation?
Although there are many definitions of meditation, basically, it is a way of using a technique — such as focusing on your breath — to achieve mental clarity and attain a state of peacefulness and calm.
Although some spend their whole lives studying and practicing meditation, even a beginner can benefit from simple meditation exercises. And meditation doesn’t require hours — ten minutes a day spent in mindfulness meditation may be enough to bring real benefits, including slowing down your heart rate, detaching from your daily concerns to get a better night’s sleep. So even those with little spare time can add it to their busy schedules.
State of Sleep Deprivation
Between 50 and 70 million Americans suffer from chronic sleep loss, and many more find themselves occasionally tossing and turning after a stressful day. This means that sleep loss is one of the most common health problems facing individuals today. The pandemic hasn’t helped matters, either. Researchers call it “coronasomnia” — the serious loss of sleep brought on by pandemic-related worries.
Unfortunately, many individuals don’t bring their sleep problems to their doctor, leading to one study suggesting that 80-90% of clinically significant sleep-disordered breathing issues remain undiagnosed.
Not getting enough shut-eye is the standard operating procedure for many people, and it’s just something to put up with. But sleep deprivation is not without consequences. Lack of sleep leads to poor work performance, increased injuries and accidents, and errors in judgment when working with others. Long-time sleep deprivation has been shown to lead to increased illnesses such as obesity and hypertension, which may develop after months of poor sleep.
There are chemical sleep aids, of course, that can help — but these bring with them the possibility of side effects and next-day drowsiness. If you are working on sleep issues with your doctor, we encourage you to follow their direction to the letter. But it may be worth asking them if meditation could help in addition to, or in place of, pharmaceutical aids.
Benefits of Meditation for Sleep
So how does meditation help you sleep? This field is fertile ground for researchers, and there is a constant stream of studies aimed at determining the benefits — and limitations — of meditation as a way to earn a good night’s sleep. Here are just a few of the ways that meditation may help you:
The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN, which has been recognized as the best hospital in the nation, calls meditation “a simple, fast way to reduce stress,” noting that even a few minutes spent in meditation can restore calm and bring a sense of inner peace.
“Meditation helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system – our body’s built-in relaxation response,” says Jewell Singletary, founder of GratitudeGriot.com. “With consistent practice, meditation alleviates anxiety by calming our nerves, lowering our heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension so our bodies and minds can sink into a soothing slumber.”
Decrease Blood Pressure
A number of studies have shown that meditation can have a small but significant effect on blood pressure, according to Harvard Medical School’s Healthbeat. A technique developed by Dr. Herbert Benson, director emeritus of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, counters the body’s fight-or-flight response and leads to a quieting of brain activity.
Promotes Emotional Wellbeing
According to the Mayo Clinic, when you meditate, you flush away the “information overload” that is part of modern life and a frequent cause of stress. This helps you to develop tools of wellbeing, such as increased self-awareness and reduced negative emotions.
Although research is still being done on this aspect of meditation, studies done to date indicate that the practice of meditation may have a positive effect on inflammation and the aging process.
Forms of Meditation
There is more than one type of meditation, and it’s even possible to blend several techniques to find one that works best for you. Here are a few of the more common kinds of meditative practice:
This popular practice involves being aware of your thoughts while you have them and paying attention to the present moment. With mindfulness meditation, you consider where you are at the current moment, paying attention to your calm breathing and letting any thoughts that come into your mind slip away without judging them. This style of meditation can be easily done when you find yourself tossing and turning at night.
With transcendental meditation, you have a mantra, which is a word, short phrase, or even just a meaningless sound like “om,” which you repeat over and over again. This repetition is a way to free your mind of other thoughts, release stress, and heighten awareness of yourself and your body. Usually, it is practiced for about 15 minutes, twice a day, and can be done just before going to bed.
As the name suggests, guided meditation is usually done with a teacher or guide leading you into a meditative state. Often, the guide will have you form a mental picture of a relaxing location and encourage you to experience that location using all your senses. This sort of meditation is available through many online programs and apps.
Loving Kindness Meditation
This is sometimes called metta meditation, and unlike most forms of meditation which focus purely on the self, it has you focusing on sending good wishes to others. You may start the meditation by wishing peace and joy to yourself, but following that, you begin to extend the wishes to close family and friends and even further out to all global citizens. The meditation often ends with a mantra, such as “may all beings everywhere be happy.”
Yoga is an ancient practice that is now a staple in gym classes and on exercise DVDs. Although there are many types of yoga, all involve moving in a set series of positions while practicing calm, focused breathing. The goal is to release your mind of stress and worry as well as increase physical flexibility. Some gentle yoga movements can even be done when you are in bed or just before you go to bed to increase the possibility of a sound sleep.
How Can You Implement Meditation Into Your Life
All these meditative practices may help you release anxiety and worry and achieve a state of calm that will allow you to sink into a deep, refreshing sleep.
Zen meditation, for example, is an ancient practice derived from Buddhist principles. With Zen meditation, you sit upright on a cushion with legs crossed and hands folded together across your abdomen. Keeping your spine erect but relaxed, you focus on your breathing and work toward a quiet awareness and inward peace.
Guided sleep meditations may combine several aspects of meditation to relax your mind and body while in bed. They may involve breathing exercises, visualizations of a peaceful scene, and a mindful scanning of your body. Guided sleep meditations are available from companies like Headspace.com and Insighttimer.com.
Daily mindfulness practices usually focus on building an awareness of the present moment and can be practiced at any time of the day. For example, if you have a stressful desk job that requires you to work long hours, a mindfulness practice can involve taking ten minutes at lunchtime to close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and allow thoughts to enter your mind and then slip away without reaction. Or use all your senses to imagine a calm scene — a rolling green hillside or peaceful lake, perhaps — and take the time to imagine the sounds, smells, sights, and more that you might observe.
Experts suggest that daily mindfulness meditations work best when you practice them every day. “It’s like exercise,” says Dr. Nishi Bhopal, an integrative psychiatrist and sleep specialist at IntraBalance Integrative Psychiatry & Sleep in San Francisco. “if you practice only once in a while, you won’t get the same benefits as if you did it regularly. I recommend starting with just a few minutes a day in the morning or the evening. Stick to the same time daily and make it a part of your routine, just like brushing your teeth.”
Licensed psychologist Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson points out that beginning a meditation practice can be challenging as it can be a journey to even train your mind to stay engaged and not wander off. She points out that getting distracted is part of the learning process, and doesn’t mean that you are failing in your meditation. As you continue to practice, it’ll be easier to focus your mind.
Slumber Yard’s Guided Sleep Meditation
The Slumber Yard team has created a one-of-a-kind guided sleep meditation that you can use when needed. This meditation is designed to help you transition into restful slumber and be used every evening before you go to bed.
Our meditation guides:
Setting the Mood for Sleep
Meditation can be a big boost in your efforts to get a good night’s sleep, but there are some other tactics you can take in addition that will help you relax even more, including the following:
- Essential oils have been shown in studies to be helpful as a natural sleep aid. A diffuser with lavender, bergamot, chamomile or another soothing scent in your bedroom can help, as will taking a bath or shower before bed with a soap or bubble bath containing essential oils.
- Avoid blue lights: The blue light that your tv, computer, tablet, or cell phone emits can hinder sleep. Experts suggest that you turn off your devices several hours before bedtime to avoid interfering with your body’s biological clock.
- Sleep in a cool room: Turn the thermostat between 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit before you go to bed. Experts believe the best temperature to promote sleep is about 10% below your waking temperature, with the option of adding an extra blanket if you feel cold.
Tips for Improving Your Meditation Skills
Meditation is an easily accessible skill that anyone can use — even children. It can help you get a sense of calm even if you’re just starting with meditation, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t ways to improve your skills. Try the following to enhance your practices:
- Use Aromatherapy. As we mentioned above, essential oils can help induce sleep. Lighting a stick of incense or a scented candle may also provide benefits.
- Practice Breathing Exercises. Practicing your breathing exercises couldn’t be easier. Try doing some focused breaths while stopped at a red light, while checking out at the grocery store, or during commercial breaks when watching tv.
- Choose the Right Space. You can meditate in a chair, on a cushion, or even in bed. Be sure, however, that your mattress is the right one for your needs and isn’t leaving you with an aching back or sore muscles after laying on it.
- Use an App. Meditation apps are becoming increasingly popular. Some of the biggest players in the field are Headspace, Calm, and Aura. Many apps have a free trial period so you can see if they work for you.
- Meditation Albums. If an app isn’t the right option for you, consider an album that features guided meditations. Jason Stephenson is one public figure who creates soothing sleep meditation music. You can find it on YouTube and leave it to play while you fall asleep. “Meditation music with frequencies embedded within (such as Alpha or Theta) can help the meditation practitioner reach heightened states of awareness and deeper relaxation sooner,” said Stephenson when we talked to him for this guide.
- Incorporate into your Morning or Evening Routine. “Set aside at least five minutes every day [to meditate] before sleep or after you wake up,” says Dr. Brian Wind, chief clinical officer at JourneyPure.com.
- Practice, Practice, Practice. Even a beginner can meditate successfully, but taking the time, even five or ten minutes, every day to do so will help you hone your skills and may bring even more benefits to your world.
There’s not much to be said about meditation that isn’t good. You can practice it for free, you don’t need expensive devices or equipment, and it can benefit you throughout the day and night — safely, and with no harmful side effects. Aiding your sleep, of course, is one huge plus for this practice. But learning to schedule brief meditation sessions throughout your day can help improve your outlook on life and help your physical and mental health. Whether you’re a busy mom with three kids to wrangle or the CEO of your own small business, meditation will help alleviate your stress and earn you the promise of a good night’s sleep every night.