Monthly Archives: May 2014

  • A Mindful Approach To Insomnia

    If you suffer from insomnia, you’re not alone. An estimated 50% of us in the UK struggle to get a good night’s sleep. Poor sleep doesn’t just make for an uncomfortable night; the effects of insomnia carry on into the day too. For example, we may find that our ability to focus is impaired or we may feel grouchy. Insomnia can increase depression, affect our physical health and has even been shown to lead us to make unhealthier food choices. It’s a problem we just can’t afford to ignore.

    The good news is that one of the many benefits of practicing mindfulness is improved length and quality of sleep. However, unlike most other methods, such as medication or counting sheep, mindfulness requires us to kindly acknowledge and accept our sleeping difficulties, rather than try to cover over them, fix them or avoid them.

    Changing the Goal

    When we can’t sleep, the thing we want more than anything is the very thing that eludes us. Our only goal is to ‘just get some sleep’, and so begins the struggle. As the night goes on, our desperation increases; the more sleeplessness we experience, the more we crave to meet our goal. This conflict between how our present moment really is and how we want it to be can bring up a range of unpleasant emotions. We may get angry and find ourselves remembering past events that have annoyed us, or we may become overwhelmed by depression and find that our predicament brings us to tears.

    Mindfulness offers an alternative ‘goal’. Rather than trying to get to where we want to be, we re-focus our attention on where we actually are. We stop trying to fight the situation, and instead surrender to it with awareness and self-kindness.

    The word ‘surrender’ might have negative connotations for some people. But think of it this way: You’ve just walked into a pit of quicksand. Your natural instinct is to try and get out as quickly as possible, so you start struggling against the pull. Then you notice that the more you struggle, the faster you sink. So what do you do? Fight more, or surrender? It may seem obvious in this scenario. And yet so many of us spend each night fighting to escape our sleeplessness, when in fact we need to breathe, relax and let go of the struggle to fight it.

    Observing with Self-Compassion

    Perhaps you can’t sleep because you’re feeling stressed or worried about something. Perhaps you’re in pain. Whatever the reason for your insomnia, paying attention to it in a kind, accepting way will help your body and mind relax.

    Once we’re aware of the thoughts spinning through our head – for example “If I don’t get some sleep, I won’t meet my deadline tomorrow” or “This always happens! I can never sleep!” – then we can take steps to create some distance from them. You can practice doing this right now, in fact. Take just a moment to really feel into one of these difficult thoughts, one that you often have when you can’t sleep. Notice the emotions and feelings it produces in your body. Notice any tension or anxiety. Now mentally take a step back, and think of it as simply, “I am currently having the thought of….”. If it helps, imagine that the words of the thought are written on a poster, or a t-shirt, or on the side of a moving bus. Notice any difference?

    Self-compassion during this process is key. What can often happen when we can’t get to sleep is we get frustrated or angry with ourselves. Yet imagine doing this with a baby who can’t get to sleep. If we take our frustrated thoughts, and imagine vocalising them to the baby (imagine the words, tone and volume), think of what the reaction would be: more crying and still no sleep. And so, showing kindness to ourselves is vital if we want to become calm and relaxed, and thus more open and receptive for when sleep finally arrives.