Within the past 20 years, mindfulness has become immensely popular. You may know about its association with Buddhism and meditation, and that mindfulness is supposed to help you to live a happier and healthier life. Even science has proved that regular mindfulness meditation improves your memory and immune system and helps you to regulate your emotions better.
But what does this all mean if you are suffering from a specific condition like chronic insomnia? How is mindfulness relevant to you when your racing thoughts are keeping you awake at night? Isn’t mindfulness rather a nice-to-have tool to improve the sleep of a normal sleeper? Or can it really help to cure long-term chronic insomnia?
All these questions we want to cover in this article. I will give you a general introduction of what mindfulness is and what its fundamental principles are before I dive deeper into how it can help you if you suffer from chronic insomnia. Only this much now: the concept of mindfulness is simple yet complex, so be prepared to take a larger detour with me to find out if and how mindfulness may help you to overcome insomnia.
Are you willing to stop trying to sleep?
If you are suffering from chronic insomnia, I don’t need to remind you how frustrating it feels to lie awake at night in bed trying to sleep. However, have you actually ever consciously let go of the intention to fall asleep? If yes, how did that feel and what did that do to your struggle with sleeplessness? If no, then I would like to invite you to try it out, even if it is only for a short moment during the night. Instead of trying to force yourself back to sleep, accept your current state of not being able to sleep, and see how that feels in that particular moment.
I know accepting your sleeplessness sounds crazy and to a certain extent, it is, especially considering the devastating effect lack of sleep has on your mood and energy during the day. The conscious decision not to sleep is almost a radical act because it means doing exactly the opposite of what your mind is telling you to do.
So why should you do it? The simple truth is that natural sleep is something you cannot force or control. You are probably well aware of the fact that the harder you try to get to sleep, the more awake you are. Trying to control your sleep causes stress and tension, which in turn keeps you awake and triggers further worrying about not being able to fall asleep. In other words, you get caught up in the grueling vicious cycle of insomnia.
How can you let go of the intention to sleep?
Think of it like acquiring a new skill; you are more likely to stick to the learning process if you can trust in your progress and believe that with patience and training you will eventually master the skill. It is the same with your readiness to let go of the urge to control your sleep. You require a certain degree of trust and training that accepting your sleeplessness will on the long run help you to improve your sleep. And this is where mindfulness practice offers you some great benefits.
Putting aside an important goal – in this case, the intention to sleep – for a while and accepting things as they are can be tough. The good news is that this approach is also a key principle of mindfulness and the reason why mindfulness training is such a useful tool when you take these challenging steps. Like regular exercise in the gym helps you to improve your muscle tone, regular mindfulness training will teach you how to take a break from your nightly battle and let go of trying to sleep. You learn to slow down and calm your mind, leaving you more rested, content, and satisfied both during the night and during the day.
Interested? Then let’s dive deeper into what mindfulness is and how it really works
What is Mindfulness?
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
There are many different ways to define mindfulness, but I think this definition by Jon Kabat-Zinn, one of the most renown mindfulness meditation teachers in the Western world and founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts, is probably to most accurate and easy to understand. It contains three key aspects of mindfulness and its underlying concept of awareness, acceptance and letting go: paying attention on purpose (1), in the present moment (2) and non-judgementally (2). Let’s have a more in-depth look at each of them.
What means paying attention on purpose?
To illustrate what it means to pay attention on purpose, let’s look at the opposite, not to pay attention on purpose. Think of your daily routines like brushing your teeth, getting dressed, driving your car, opening your computer, and reading emails or scrolling through your social media feeds on your smartphone. You may notice that you do all those things often without much thinking. In other words, you don’t really pay attention, you’re not really aware of what you’re doing because you perform these tasks on automatic pilot, or in other words in a state of mindlessness.
Being on autopilot means that you’re simply not fully ‘there’ in a particular moment. You become stuck in mechanical conditioned ways of thinking and doing where you find yourself constantly striving and struggling to ‘get stuff done’ instead of really living. This way, you fail to notice the small, essential things in your life. You don’t hear what your body is telling you and become more vulnerable to stress and anxiety.
Mindfulness means getting out of autopilot, and it’s never-ending (and not always positive) current of thought processes and taking back the steering wheel to be able to place your attention where you choose. This way, you live more consciously, more ‘on purpose’.
What means paying attention to the present moment?
Paying attention to the present moment is closely related to the first aspect. An excellent way to better understand this crucial second aspect of mindfulness is by looking at how children experience the world. Children live quite naturally in the present moment. They study everything with interest and curiosity, but then they can effortlessly let go and move on to the next thing.
As we get older, we tend to get stuck in our emotions, and it becomes harder for us to let go and stay in the moment. While still being busy with one activity, we already plan future steps or ruminate about past events. Unfortunately, remaining present in the here and now requires us to make a conscious effort.
What’s so problematic about a wandering mind?
Do you know these situations when you’re talking to someone, and you suddenly realize that you didn’t hear what the other person just said because you were thinking of something else? Instead of being present in the moment with the other person, your mind was wandering somewhere else. You might have been ruminating about a past event, thinking of what you have to do next or switching between those activities. You have become so preoccupied with your own problems that for a while you totally forget about the person who is talking to you.
A wandering mind is not always problematic; it can be useful because it keeps you busy and on top of things. However, if this becomes your default mode, the constant internal chattering prevents you from focusing on the moment you’re currently in. If you don’t learn to train your mind to switch off, to relax, your internal monologue can cause overstimulation and stress leaving you confused and tense. I’m sure you know those days when you feel like you have done so much but actually achieved nothing. And thinking of the next day when another million things are waiting for keeps you excited and creates further tension.
Our mind’s attraction to negativity
Also, keep in mind that your mind has a tendency to wander into negative thoughts such as ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not as lucky as other people’. Our mind’s attraction to negativity is based on our ancient survival instinct to identify potential dangers. It involves a constant effort to solve (sometimes unreal) problems, which can be very tiring and stressful. You may have experienced it yourself at night when you wake up in the early morning hours with a racing mind analyzing and trying to figure out the numerous challenges in your life.
However, you can stop that downward spiral of negative thinking by shifting your focus to the present moment, to the here and now. Mindfulness training teaches you to become aware of what is happening around and inside you in any particular moment. This conscious shift of attention has an immediate calming effect on your mind, leaving you more relaxed. And it offers the additional benefit of saving energy. Think of it: your brain is only about 2% of your body weight, but it consumes over 25% of your energy. If you calm your mind, you instantly have more energy.
What means paying attention non-judgementally?
Paying attention non-judgementally refers to the way how you respond to what is happening in any given moment. In many situations, our typical response is to immediately judge and criticize our experiences: today it’s too hot, or too cold; here it’s too noisy, and over there it’s boring; I don’t like to do this or that; I can’t stand this person and rather would be with someone else. And so it goes on and on.
We’re always judging ourselves and others and often aren’t even aware of it. Mindfulness helps you to detect this constant judging of your mind and to understand the effect it has on your mental and emotional state. With mindfulness training, you learn to let go of these unnecessary judgments. Rather than seeing things immediately as good or bad, as right or wrong, you can learn to observe things as they are.
Being non-judgmental does not mean that you suppress or stop your thoughts; nor won’t you lose your common sense or your ability to distinguish between ethical or unethical behavior. On the contrary, by experiencing things as they arise without judging or labeling them, you improve your ability to monitor your state of mind. It allows you to respond to a situation with greater clarity and less reactivity, leaving you greater freedom of choice how to respond in a challenging situation.
Why is it important to accept and let go?
Paying attention on purpose in the present moment in a non-judgemental way is a state of awareness which allows you to accept what is happening around you and to finally to let go of it. However, accepting a challenging situation is, of course, not always easy because it requires you to assess the situation actively and to make a conscious decision. This is also the reason why acceptance does not mean resignation. Resignation would be a passive approach, whereas acceptance is an active assessment process in situations where things are beyond your control.
Facing a difficult situation in your life, whether it is an illness, a relationship problem, work-related pressure, or a sleep problem also means to accept the unpleasant feelings that invariably come with it. Again, it is our human instinct to avoid troublesome situations and feelings; it is just natural that you instead seek out positive experiences and focus on things that make you feel good. However, in cases where things are outside of your control, avoidance may only give you some short-term relief, if any at all. In the long run, it can have disastrous consequences, like when you ignore a disease, don’t take care of your finances, or constantly avoid the problems you may have in your relationship.
A better way is to objectively watch and accept your negative experiences instead of pushing them away. As this can be very challenging, it’s better to be equipped. If you practice mindfulness meditation regularly, you learn how to trust in your capacity to make the conscious decision of accepting things as they are. The immediate benefit of this approach is that it will save you a lot of energy and reduces stress. Over time you become stronger and more resilient and less reactive to stressful events, and you can make better decisions in your life.
How to get from the doing mode into the being mode
Paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally all describe a particular mode of mind, which is also called the being mode. The being mode is one of the two main modes in which our mind operates; its counterpart is the doing mode, in which we spend most of our time. What the difference between these modes of mind, and why are they significant for you?
What is the doing mode?
As said, most times, we operate in the doing mode. The objective of this mode is to get things done, to achieve the goals you have been setting yourself. For goals which relate to the external world, like preparing a meal, performing in your job, or building a house the doing mode works very well and is necessary to get you from A to B.
However, when it comes to goals of your personal, internal world like to feel happier, to not make mistakes, or to be a better person, the doing mode creates a pressure that can leave you feeling that you’re not good enough, that you are a failure. Why? Because in the doing mode, your mind constantly assesses your progress in relation to your goal. Your experience is, as Zindel Sigel puts it “boiled down to a narrow, one-dimensional focus: What does this have to say about my progress in reaching my goals?”
If you feel a gap between how you are and how you would like to be, the doing mode will not be helpful as it only increases constant dwelling and ruminating making you feel worse and more stressed. Your problem-solving focused mind goes over and over again how things are and how they should be, in the hope of finding a way to reduce the gap between them. But the goal-oriented doing mode only confirms your view that you are not the kind of person you feel you need to be happy. taking you even further from your desired goal
We are 24/7 in doing mode
The other problem that we now face is an increasingly fast pace society with the internet and smartphones providing endless information to us on a 24/7 basis. And we feel immense pressure to keep up with everything that happens around us. We’re so busy replying to emails, text messages, reading social media feeds, that there is less and less opportunity to switch off our overstimulated mind.
Do you have the feeling that there is too much to do and never enough time? Are you often rushing from one thing to the next, or even trying to get multiple things done at once? So what effect is all this having on you? You end up being busy all day that you don’t have time to switch off your mind and wind down.
What is be being mode?
In the doing mode, you’re so preoccupied with analyzing the past, anticipating the future or getting things done in the present that living in the present moment is given a low priority.
Mindfulness teaches you how to get out of the restless doing mode and into the being mode. In contrast to the doing mode, the being mode is not dedicated to achieving particular goals. Instead, the focus of the being mode is ‘accepting’ and ‘allowing’ what is, with all its imperfections. In the being mode, you give yourself permission to take a break from all the achieving and future expectations; you learn to accept yourself, just as you are, and how to rest in the moment, without any immediate pressure to change it. In other words, instead of thinking about the present, the future, and the past, the being mode is a direct and immediate experience of the richness which each present moment offers.
Switching from the doing mode to the being mode doesn’t mean that you stop setting goals for yourself. Again, the doing mode is equally important in your life. But by training yourself to get more often into the being mode, you become less attached to the outcome of all your goal-setting. You can slow down, do one thing at a time, rest when you need to and create more balance in our lives. In other words, you feel happier and more satisfied with your life.
Mindfulness for insomnia: How does it work?
So far, we have covered a lot about the basics of mindfulness, what its key aspects are, why to practice it, and how it can benefit in your daily life. But what does mindfulness mean to you as someone who has a chronic sleep problem? Does the practice of being aware of the present moment in a non-judgmental way really improve your sleep, and how does it work?
The quality of your sleep is influenced by both, what you’re doing and how you’re feeling during the night when you lie awake in bed as well as what you’re doing and how you’re feeling during the day. In both situations, it is the way you respond to your internal state of mind as well as to the external stimuli which determine if and how good you can sleep.
In other words, you may not be able to change the fact that the sleeplessness causes stress, anxiety, frustration, and anger inside of you, but it’s your choice how you respond. You can either desperately try to get rid of your emotions, leaving you tense and hyper-aroused, thus more awake. Or you can choose to mindfully accept your current situation, which stops your inner struggle and gives your body and mind the opportunity to calm down and relax. Mindfulness can help you with both: it enables you to make this conscious decision to accept things as they are and it shows you what you can do in that particular situation.
Remember, you can’t force sleep
Let’s look at what is exactly happening while you’re lying awake in bed at night. First of all, it is a situation you can’t escape from, in other words, a fact you can’t change. Your sleeplessness is very painful for you at that moment: you’re seeing the same old worrisome thoughts popping up in your mind and feel the familiar anxiety arising in your stomach; you may experience physical pain like your legs start to arch, you get a cramp, you get out of breath, or begin to sweat.
At this moment you are faced with a choice: You can either try to get rid of your discomfort, which means getting stuck in additional pain as you struggle to push your troublesome physical and mental experiences away. Or you can switch into the being mode and accept to leave the things as they are, not because you like to be in pain or you want more of it, but because you see it as an inevitable part of your journey to end the insomnia struggle.
Remember, you can’t force sleep, which is why most of the coping strategies you may have been using so far didn’t work. You may not like laying awake in bed with a racing mind and in physical pain, but by taking some time to become aware what is happening with you rather than working against it has precisely the mind-calming effect you need to improve your sleep.
If you don’t accept your sleeplessness, you’re getting more frustrated and anxious, tossing and turning and counting down the hours until your alarm goes off. Accepting and not judging the state you are in helps you to remain calm and rational. It gives you that little space you need to make a wise choice about how to respond.
How does mindfulness help you when you can’t sleep?
With regular mindfulness practice, you increase your willingness to accept your sleeplessness and at the same time, you improve your skills to better cope with the physical and mental pain you’re experiencing while being awake. You learn how to deal with your insomnia demons at night and how to let go of the many unhelpful thoughts such as “If I don’t sleep now, I won’t be able to cope tomorrow”. As a result, you remain calm and relaxed and have the patience to develop the non-striving attitude necessary to establish the trust in your natural ability to sleep.
Remember, the more you let go of trying to sleep, the more relaxed you become, and the easier you can fall asleep. And that is in line with the core principles of mindfulness practices. Keep in mind that the primary intention of mindfulness practice is not to put you to sleep but to increase your awareness of what is happening in an around you. That’s why I asked you at the beginning if you are willing not to sleep for a while. However, mindfulness meditation exercises like focusing on your breath or examining your sensations have immediate relaxation effects that put you in the right place for natural sleep.
How to get started with mindfulness practice to improve your sleep?
Keep in mind that mindfulness is not limited to meditation exercises but means living your life moment by moment. You can practice mindfulness during the day as well as during the night when you can’t sleep.
During the day consciously notice what you’re sensing in a given moment; what you are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting. Detect those short moments of mindfulness to reset your focus and to train your awareness to your experiences (e.g., notice the water running over your skin in the shower or chew more slowly when eating your lunch to experience the different tastes).
When you lie awake in bed at night, try to focus only on your breath; notice the sensations that arise in your body and the thoughts that popping up in your mind without judging them. Don’t suppress your thoughts and emotions, just notice, and then let go of them.
If focusing on your breath is difficult for you, you can also pay attention to your sense of touch; the feeling of the pillow touching your face or the mattress connecting with your body.
These are only a few of the many simple but highly effective mindfulness exercises which help to increase your awareness of your physical and mental state. With regular practice, you learn how to better respond to stressful situations in your life, including the unwanted thoughts and emotions which are keeping you awake at night. Therefore, mindfulness offers you not only the skills to cope with sleeplessness but helps your also to build up your trust in your own natural ability to sleep. It’s definitely worth a try!
Want to find out if you already practice mindfulness? Take this short quiz.