Understanding the difference between describing and judging is critical to your response to insomnia. When you lie awake in bed and feel your heart beating loudly, what pops up in your mind? Is it a judgment like “If my heart doesn’t slow down soon, I won’t be able to sleep,” or worse, “I’ll have a heart attack.”
Such an assessment is not helpful because it will cause adrenaline to continue to rise and further increase your heart rate. It also leads to unhelpful behaviors such as trying out relaxation strategies to lower your heart rate, which, if unsuccessful, can lead to frustration, more adrenaline, a further increase in heart rate, and eventually, a panic attack.
Making judgments about how things are good or bad also uses up a lot of energy, which makes you feel even more tired then if you would simply lie awake without the struggle.
The calming effect of describing your experiences objectively
In contrast, the ability to objectively describe your experiences by saying, “I can feel my heart beating fast in my chest” means that you accept the present moment without adding another unhelpful judgment or feeling to it.
If you stop trying to change your racing heart rate, you are not contributing to it, because no more adrenaline is released. Your mind quietens, and your body becomes less tense.
To be able to describe your experiences objectively may require some practice, but the effects are even more far-reaching than just improving your sleep.
How can you learn to stop judging your experience?
An excellent way to learn to stop judging your experience and to become more objective is practicing mindfulness.
With the following five mindfulness practices, you can learn to just accept your current situation without trying to change it immediately.
Start using these techniques initially during the day, and later, when you are more familiar with the process, you can do some of them (e.g., mindfulness breathing) in bed at night.
Keep in mind that these exercises are subtle when you first try them but gain in power with repetition and practice.
1. Mindful breathing
The most basic way to be mindful is to focus your attention for one minute on your breath, the inhale and exhale. Feel it flow through you—in and out. Keep the flow natural. Follow it from your nostrils to your throat and chest and your belly. This simple thing—paying attention to your breath—can be surprisingly hard, even for longtime practitioners. If your mind starts to wander, remember that’s natural. Just notice it and gently bring it back each time. Don’t judge yourself for being “not good at it.”
For a more structured technique, you can try the 4-7-8 method. Inhale to a count of four, hold the breath to a count of seven, and exhale to a count of eight. Again, every time a thought pops into your head, just get your focus back on your breath. That’s the whole game. It’s not about winning. It’s about engaging in the process.
2. Mindful seeing
Pick an object in your immediate environment or a space at a window where there are sights to be seen outside. Pay attention to the movement of the leaves or the grass in the breeze. Notice the many different shapes in this small segment of the world you can see. Look at everything there is to see. Be observant, but not critical. If your mind starts labeling and categorizing what you see (e.g., if it’s a bird, you may be thinking “stop singing”), gently pull it away from those thoughts and notice a color, the shape, the patterns, or the textures again.
3. Mindful practicing a routine
We can be easily distracted when we’re completing simple tasks, but these are ideal opportunities to practice being mindful. Pick something you do every day and take for granted, like brushing your teeth, making coffee, ironing, making the bed, showering, vacuuming, or washing the dishes. Next time you do it, focus on each step and action and the different sensations that arise as you do it.
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For example, when doing the dishes, be aware of the warmth of the water, the texture of the dishes, and the foamy bubbles. Notice the movements of your hands and the simple task of making your dishes look clean again.
4. Mindful eating
We tend to reduce eating to a sensation of bite, chew, and swallow. Who hasn’t eaten a plateful of food without noticing what we’re doing? At your next meal, slow down and continue to breathe as you eat. Then, take your bites mindfully and experience the taste, flavors, textures, and enjoyment you are receiving from a certain food. Be aware of the fact that you’re eating and what you’re eating.
Follow the same instructions of drinking mindfully- notice the colors, textures, flavors, and temperature of what you’re drinking.
5. Five senses exercise
This exercise provides guidelines to practice mindfulness quickly in almost any situation. It teaches you to notice something you are experiencing with each of the five senses. Follow this order to practice the five senses exercise:
Notice five things you can see – Look around and focus your attention on five things you can see. Pick out something that you don’t usually notice, like a shadow or a small crack in the concrete.
Pick out four things that you can feel – Be aware of four things you are feeling right now, like the texture of your pants, the feeling of a breeze on your skin, or the smooth surface of a table where you rest your hands.
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Be aware of three things you can hear – Take a moment to listen and write down three things you hear in the background. These may be the twittering of a bird, the hum of the refrigerator, or the soft sounds of traffic from a nearby road.
Note two things you can smell – Be aware of smells that you normally filter out, whether they are pleasant or unpleasant. Maybe the breeze carries a touch of pine trees when you are outside, or the smell of a fast-food restaurant across the street.
Notice one thing you can taste – Focus on one thing that you can taste right now, in this moment. For example, take a sip of a drink, chew gum, eat something, perceive the current taste in your mouth, or even open your mouth to look for a taste in the air.
Things to consider when starting with mindfulness exercises
Talking about the benefits of mindfulness is the easy part; actually practicing it is what’s more challenging. Here are my golden rules to follow when you begin a mindfulness practice.
Start small but be consistent
Start practicing mindfulness exercises for only a few minutes a day until it becomes a habit. The key is to find a schedule that works for you without it feeling like an annoying duty – no matter how long or short it is – and to be consistent. It’s tempting to judge yourself by saying things like, “I only meditated for five minutes today…” Consistency is more important than time. Even with a one-or-two-minute mindfulness practice every day, you can begin to enjoy the benefits.
One thing mindfulness teaches is patience, but you won’t find that out unless you find some patience for yourself in the beginning. Let go of your expectations and become curious about the process instead of being frustrated that you have not yet reached an unrealistic goal.
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Remember that you are learning a new skill and that it will take a few weeks to get the hang of it. I know that it is incredibly hard to be patient when you are exhausted and maybe frustrated. This is probably the hardest thing. What might help is to remember that patience is another way to be kind to yourself.
Don’t try to clear your mind
This is probably the most frequently misunderstood myth for mindfulness meditation. The goal is not to clear the mind – that would be impossible since the human mind naturally focuses on things. So if you have found your mind overactive and racing from one thought to another, it doesn’t mean that you should scold yourself, it’s just that you are human. Calming, relaxing, and decluttering the mind are all nice benefits that a meditation practice can bring. But to clear it completely? Impossible!
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So mind-wandering is allowed; it is even an essential part of the process. Your mind will wander off to a word, image, sound, or memory that distracts you for a short time. When this happens, recognize your distraction with a friendly greeting such as “Hello, thought” or “Thank you, mind” and then gently release it by bringing your consciousness back into your mindfulness practice (a good anchor is your breath).
Remember, the goal is to maintain a gentle relationship with what is showing up in your mind, even if it is unhelpful thoughts in the middle of the night.