Mindfulness and Sleep

April 16, 2023

Why is sleep important? 

When was the last time you had a truly restorative, restful night of sleep? How did it feel?

You only need one night of tossing and turning to understand the importance of a good night’s sleep. Restless nights can make you feel groggy and tired the next day, unable to perform daily tasks at your normal level of proficiency. So imagine the long-term ramifications if night after night you struggle to fall asleep, stay asleep, or achieve the deeper levels of sleep that allow you to feel fully recovered from the stresses of life.

Sleep problems affect a significant number of people. The National Institute of Health estimates that approximately 50-70 million people have chronic sleep disorders, and almost 40% of adults experience unintentional daytime sleepiness that causes them to fall asleep unexpectedly at least once per month. Sleep disturbances present in a variety of ways, including:

  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Early awakening
  • Poor sleep quality
  • Daytime sleepiness
  • Disrupted sleep cycles

According to The Sleep Foundation, a wide range of physical and emotional effects can be attributed to our quality of sleep. Good quality sleep assists in physical healing and brain development. Deeper stages of sleep are considered essential for important brain functions like learning and memory. On the flip side, sleep deprivation causes a variety of poor physical health outcomes related to our heart, brain, immune system, and weight and hormone regulation, while also contributing to mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Who struggles with sleep? 

People who struggle with mental health issues often also have sleep difficulties. While it was once thought that depression and anxiety caused sleep disturbances, we now know that there is a bidirectional relationship between them, meaning that sleep disturbances can lead to symptoms of depression and anxiety as well. According to The Sleep Foundation, about 75% of depressed people also demonstrate symptoms of insomnia. The state of hyperarousal, or racing thoughts, that’s common to anxiety is also believed to be a major contributing factor to insomnia.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a non-judgemental awareness of one’s internal and external experiences. The practice of exercises like body scanning and breathing meditations can cultivate mindfulness. Some psychologists have developed interventions that incorporate mindfulness activities into therapeutic programs, such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). The American Psychological Association Dictionary suggests that these therapeutic techniques “help people avoid destructive or automatic habits and responses by learning to observe their thoughts, emotions, and other present-moment experiences without judging or reacting.”

Can mindfulness exercises improve sleep?

Mindfulness is an important component of the mind-body connection. Although relaxation is not the focal point of mindfulness, activities like meditation tend to relieve stress and decrease anxious thoughts. Research has demonstrated that mindfulness meditations and exercises can also increase pain tolerance and reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

Mindfulness meditations have also been effective in improving sleep quality in the general population. A recent high level scientific review of research on mindfulness interventions in people with depression and anxiety showed considerable benefits for both mental symptoms and sleep quality.

Mindfulness exercise to incorporate into your bedtime routine:

  • Quiet the room: start by removing distractions and eliminating potential interruptions. Turn off the TV. Put your cellphone on quiet mode. Darken the room. 
  • Find a comfortable position in your bed, making sure all parts of your body are fully supported.
  • Focus on your breathing: Gently bring your attention to one aspect of your breath. Notice the way the air moves in and out of your nostrils or the rise and fall of your chest with each breath. 
  • Continue doing this for several minutes, releasing tension with each exhale.
  • If your mind tries to wander, gently guide it back to focusing on your breathing.
  • Do this exercise for 5-10 minutes each night before going to sleep.

A word of caution

Although mindfulness has many benefits, it also has its limitations. It is important to note that if you are experiencing significant mental distress or are concerned that you or a loved one could hurt themselves or others, you should seek professional help immediately. And although mindfulness can be helpful for a variety of health problems, mindfulness alone is not sufficient to treat all causes of sleep disturbances, pain and other medical problems.

Written by Theresa Karcher, APRN. Theresa is a nurse practitioner and freelance health writer at Nurses-Station.com

References

American Psychological Association (2023). APA Dictionary of Psychology.

https://dictionary.apa.org/mindfulness

Chan SH, Lui D, Chan H, Sum K, Cheung A, Yip H, Yu CH. Effects of mindfulness-based intervention programs on sleep among people with common mental disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. World J Psychiatry. 2022 Apr 19;12(4):636-650. doi: 10.5498/wjp.v12.i4.636. PMID: 35582336; PMCID: PMC9048455. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9048455/pdf/WJP-12-636.pdf

National Institutes of Health (NIH). (2022, March). What are Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency? https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/sleep-deprivation

Suni, E. (2023, March). The Sleep Foundation: Mental Health and Sleep. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/mental-health

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