Few things in life are more frustrating than lying awake at night, unable to sleep. Dragging yourself out of bed after a long night of tossing and turning can be demoralizing, to say the least, and nights like this can leave you exhausted.
If you've been spending the night staring at your ceiling instead of snoozing, one potential remedy could be meditation.
But how does it work?
We turned to two meditation specialists, Dr. Darshan Mehta, Medical Director of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, and Andy Puddicombe, Headspace co-founder and meditation expert, for their insight.
What is meditation?
"Top-line, [meditation] is a way of looking after and caring for the mind," says Puddicombe. It isn't about turning off your thoughts entirely, but observing the thoughts you have. You don't have to achieve any particular state of mind to be meditating correctly.
"Our job is to show up and witness the mind as it is, knowing that what we are looking for is already here," says Puddicombe, "not that we need to try and somehow intellectually create that idea of peace in our mind."
Keep in mind that there are lots of different ways to meditate and one doesn't necessarily trump the others.
"Culturally speaking, it has origins in many, many different religious and spiritual traditions around the world," says Mehta. Popular forms of meditation include mindfulness or calming meditation, insight meditation or Vipassana meditation, and transcendental meditation. Mindfulness meditation is intended to create a quieter, more peaceful mind while insight meditation aims to develop particular qualities like wisdom or compassion. Transcendental meditation is a popular branch of meditation founded on the techniques of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
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What are the benefits of meditation?
"We’ve learned many of these practices do have health benefits associated with them — from improving symptoms of anxiety and depression to reducing blood pressure and having better control of other metabolic parameters," Mehta says of the scientifically proven side effects of meditation.
Science has yet to pinpoint which types of meditation can help with which specific issues patients are facing, but Mehta believes this knowledge will be the next frontier in clinical meditation studies.
"In the next five years, we should be able to 'prescribe' the form or type of meditation that might be best served for that individual, for that symptom," he explains.
Can meditation help you sleep? If so, how?
When we feel stressed, our bodies go into a physiological response called "fight or flight." In this state of hypervigilance, the body makes you stay awake because it fears danger. If you can release stress in your life and practice a calm mind, you'll find yourself falling asleep much easier.
"A lot of people I know get very anxious and fearful around sleep," says Puddicombe. "All that thinking does is make us feel more stressed and less likely to go to sleep."
Both experts agree meditation can help with sleep, but maybe not in the way you'd imagine — it's not like turning on some quiet music or white noise before you tuck yourself in.
"Most people assume mindfulness meditation will be done immediately before sleep," says Puddicombe. In actuality, he notes, "Most of the mindfulness research gets people to meditate first thing in the morning."
Meditation benefits our ability to sleep by setting up a calmer mind, decreasing the stress response, regulating circadian rhythms and allowing us to approach sleep differently.
What is the best way to meditate for better sleep?
While traditional meditation should help, Mehta also recommends yoga nidra, or yoga for sleep, as a popular form of meditation for people who struggle to get rest at night.
"It is a series of practices that permit sleep," Mehta explains of the guided practice. "Most of it is intentional relaxation of the muscle groups and ultimately finding a space of equanimity."
Unlike other meditative practices, Mehta advises it's best to practice yoga nidra when you're trying to go to bed: "The best way to describe it is a body scan. You are sort of scanning different parts of the body, but you are really going into intentional relaxation from one point of the body to another."
Early research suggests yoga nidra can help to reduce one's feelings of stress and anxiety and that it may help improve the quality of sleep in those suffering from insomnia.
The Headspace app also has an entire channel dedicated to sleep that includes guided meditation exercises and more immediate sleep aids like calming music.
Long story short, all of the health benefits you receive from meditation will play into your body's ability to get a better night of rest.
I want to try meditating, but where do I start?
"Start small," says Puddicombe, "It’s more about frequency than it is duration."
Puddicombe recommends meditating for 10 minutes a day to receive the maximum benefits from the activity, although he says it's best to work your way up to that amount of time. If you are new to meditation, even 3 to 5 minutes a day will make a difference.
In the beginning, Puddicombe suggests connecting meditation to something you do every day.
"Let's say you shower every morning or you have a cup of coffee every morning, tie it to one of those things," says Puddicombe. "Once you tie meditation to it, you are more likely to remember to do it."
Mehta also recommends asking for professional advice if you're having trouble getting started.
"The biggest reason people come to see us is for sleep," he says. "Having some guidance is important and then it can be self-sustainable. You need to talk to your health care provider about this, having open conversations."
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