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It’s 2:03 am. You’re lying awake, watching the numbers on the clock tick past, wishing you could get back to sleep. Maybe you’re doing some mental math: “If I fall asleep now, I can get four hours of sleep before it’s time to get up. Then, another hour passes by. And inevitably, when you finally drift off, the damage is done: you are likely to spend the day feeling moody and exhausted. If you are struggling with getting the sleep you need, check out these 5 mindfulness exercises. 

According to doctors at Johns Hopkins Medicine, about 20 percent of Americans suffer from a condition known as “sleep maintenance insomnia,” another way of saying they struggle to get back to sleep when they wake in the night. It’s not the waking up itself that’s the issue. The problem is when you wake up and stay awake. 

Not being able to fall back to sleep can easily become a vicious cycle. When you have trouble falling asleep and staying asleep, it’s common to develop sleep anxiety, which can then cause you to stay awake longer. Ultimately, this sleeplessness can wreak havoc on your mental health, physical health, daily productivity, and relationships. 

For many people, the most frustrating part of sleep maintenance insomnia is that the solution is seemingly simple: just go to sleep. But when your mind is racing with to-do lists and worries, that’s no easy task. In fact, the longer you stay awake and stare at the clock, the more difficult it feels. Luckily, you can break the pattern, though. Incorporating mindfulness exercises into your sleep routine can help you get to sleep and stay asleep, ensuring you are well-rested and ready to tackle the day. 

How Mindfulness Helps Sleep

Why are mindfulness exercises so popular nowadays? When you practice mindfulness, you focus on your breathing, and what is happening in the present moment. It’s a way of calming your mind and body, spurring relaxation that ultimately helps you fall asleep. 

The effects of mindfulness on sleep were explored in a small study published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2015. Subjects who self-reported sleep disturbances were divided into two groups; one group completed sleep hygiene education classes, while the other group participated in standardized mindfulness practice. At the conclusion of the six-week intervention, the subjects who participated in mindfulness interventions showed significantly more improvement in their sleep disturbances and quality of sleep — and by extension, their quality of life — than those who only received sleep hygiene education. 

The relaxation response 

There’s evidence that mindfulness and sleep mantras are better than counting sheep when it comes to managing nighttime waking. Harvard sleep expert Dr. Herbert Benson argues that this is because mindfulness spurs what he refers to as the “relaxation response.” The opposite of a stress response (the so-called “fight or flight” response) a relaxation response is the ability to make your brain release chemicals that cause your body to calm, your heart and breathing rate to slow, and blood flow to the brain to increase. Essentially, it’s the ability to turn off the stress response by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system responsible for less stimulating and more nurturing activities. 

Although learning how to use the relaxation response has been shown to benefit a host of ailments, including high blood pressure, chronic pain, and anxiety, it’s also helpful with insomnia. Dr. Benson notes that when you develop the ability to spur your relaxation response via daily practice, you can then implement it whenever you need it — like at 2:03 a.m. when you’re lying awake and staring at the clock. 

Developing your mindfulness skills can take time and requires practice. Although practices like tai chi and yoga can help you learn to focus on your breathing and remain in the present, one of the easiest ways to develop your ability to invoke relaxation is via mindfulness meditation. Practicing this meditation for 10-20 minutes every day, ideally when you first wake up, will help you learn to initiate the relaxation response and improve your feelings of well-being. 

5 Mindfulness Exercises for better sleep

1. Mantra 

The good news about mindfulness exercises is that you don’t need any special equipment or training to engage in them. All you need is a quiet, comfortable space where you’ll be undisturbed for a few minutes. Begin by choosing a mantra. Ideally, this should be a single, pleasant-sounding word that you can easily coordinate with your breath. Avoid choosing a word that has associations that can distract you or stimulate unnecessary thoughts. A single number or color is a good choice; something like “sleep” or “relax” could backfire if it only reminds you that you are awake.

Once you’ve chosen a mantra, sit comfortably and relax all of your muscles, from your toes to the top of your head. Breathe naturally, and repeat your mantra as you breathe in and out. If an unwanted thought intrudes, return your focus to your mantra. Start with 10 minutes, and work your way toward a 20-minute practice. When you’ve finished, sit quietly for a few moments with your eyes open, focusing on how you feel.

It can take time for this basic exercise to feel comfortable, and to achieve the relaxation response. It’s important to keep practicing and let your body relax naturally, without forcing it. The irony is that the more you actively try to relax, the more stressed you can become, and the less likely you are to feel the benefits of mindfulness. Just be in the moment, and let relaxation come at its own pace.

Once you become comfortable with this mindfulness exercise, you can use it anytime you need to relax — including while lying in bed. In fact, there’s a good chance that you’ll nod off before you reach the 20-minute mark.

2. Body Scan 

A body scan is a “check-in” with your body to see how each part is feeling, without interpretation or judgment. Beginning with one foot, tense and relax the muscles and note how it feels. Is it sore? Cold? Don’t respond to the feeling, just note it and move on. Move on to your other foot, ankles, lower legs, thighs, hips, and so on, until you have checked in with every part of your body. At some point, you will find that your body begins to feel heavy and relaxed in the bed; you might even nod off before you get to every part. That’s okay. If, at any point, other thoughts intrude, simply acknowledge them and continue focusing on your body scan.

Another variation of this mindfulness technique is to imagine your body feeling heavy. Starting with your feet, imagine that each part is so heavy that you can’t lift it on your own. Work our way around your body until every part is relaxed; again, you may fall asleep before you reach your head. You can also visualize “switching off” each body part, as you might while turning off a series of light switches in a building. Starting with your feet, imagine powering down each part for rest.

3. Loving Kindness

Focusing on love and good feelings can quiet your mind and spur the kind of positivity that reduces stress and worry. With this type of meditation, visualize someone that you feel very warmly toward, such as a spouse, partner, child, friend, or even a co-worker. Imagine sending them love and good thoughts, and receiving the same in return. You might imagine the positive feelings as a type of glow or a sensation of warmth that surrounds you. Focus on the positive emotions and how your heart fills with joy and a sense of well-being. This emphasis on positivity and “good vibes” can reduce anxiety and worry, and help you fall back to sleep.

4. Pre-Bedtime Rituals

Bedtime rituals can help you achieve relaxation and stay asleep all night long. A ritual is a specific practice that you engage in every night, in the same order, to support sleep. Beginning an hour or two before bed, engage in a few practices to get you into a sleep mindset, and keep you there. These could include:

  • A warm shower or bath
  • Gentle stretching 
  • Journaling
  • Drinking a cup of tea
  • Reading
  • Listening to relaxing music 

Engaging in any of these activities mindfully, with a focus on preparing for bed and relaxation, can help reduce insomnia. If worries are keeping you awake, for instance, try designating a specific “worry time.” Although it might seem counterproductive to deliberately set aside time for worrying, knowing that you have 10-20 minutes to release your concerns and unburden yourself can free your mind to focus on relaxation. Whether you journal, talk to a loved one or just let your mind wander, scheduling worry time allows you to explore your feelings, become more aware of why you are feeling the way you do, and how to better manage issues. 

Although this and the previously mentioned mindfulness exercises can be effective to help you sleep soundly, if they aren’t working and you still struggle with getting adequate sleep, you should consider seeking professional help. Talk to your doctor about any possible underlying issues that could be contributing to your sleep problems. 

5. Guided Sleep Meditations

If you’re struggling with your mindfulness exercises, engaging in a series of guided meditations can help. Try downloading the Synctuition app, which helps you achieve the kind of deep relaxation needed for enjoying a restful night. By listening to the soothing sounds from nature present in each audio journey, you can relax and distance yourself from any negative or distracting thoughts that might keep you awake. All you need is a pair of headphones, a smart device, and 25 minutes of your time.