We often struggle to sleep at night because our minds can be racing and filled with stressful, anxious and worrisome thoughts. When we’re going through something difficult or challenging in life, naturally we get lost in our thoughts at night, which can hook us in and pull us away from sleep. Sometimes they’re not even bad thoughts and our minds can just be busy thinking about all the things we need to do, what’s happening in our lives and other random things.
Instinctively we might try to stop, block out or distract ourselves from this incessant thinking with the hope this will allow us to relax and drift off. People suffering from insomnia naturally try all sorts of things to do this, such as listening to things to distract themselves and using special techniques to try and calm their minds. The problem is no matter what you try to do to stop those racing thoughts from happening, they just won’t stop. Consequently that inner chatterbox can repeatedly get in the way of a good night’s sleep.
We might also be struggling to sleep because of certain feelings we’re experiencing, such as anxiety, frustration, worry, stress, nervousness and sadness, to name a few. Sometimes these feelings are more subtle and insomniacs just lie awake in bed experiencing what’s often referred to as feeling ‘tired but wired’ – feeling tired in your body but at the same time tense, alert and wide awake. At other times these feelings can be more intense and it might be experiencing a racing heart, having anxious knots in your stomach, incessant restlessness and hypervigilance or feeling stiff with fear or panic.
But there’s good news – whether you’re facing a temporary sleep struggle or chronic insomnia, basic mindfulness could be a key part of what you need to finally rest at night. It can help you to let go of the racing thoughts keeping you awake at night and not get overwhelmed by uncomfortable feelings either.
Mindfulness might initially sound like a bit of a soft fluffy option for a problem as serious as insomnia, but for now I’d encourage you to be open minded and explore it more. Bear in mind that mindfulness is not there to fix you or help you relax, but to help you get better at experiencing and allowing difficult thoughts and feelings to happen at night without struggling with them and letting them consume you and pull you away from sleep.
How can mindfulness help with my sleep?
Paradoxically mindfulness isn’t used to help you fall asleep or relax. The chances are you’ve already probably been trying to force sleep and relax at night, and how’s that working out for you? You can’t force sleep to happen and trying to do so will only backfire. Everyone’s aware that, to some degree, the harder you try to sleep and relax, the less likely it seems to become. What mindfulness does is help someone create the right mental and physiological state for sleep to happen naturally, without trying to force it.
Many insomniacs may have already tried mindfulness to help them sleep before, e.g. using meditation apps, but given up on it because they think it’s not working. They try it and then expect it to make them feel relaxed and fall asleep, getting frustrated when they don’t fall asleep on cue and find mindfulness hasn’t instantly solved their sleep issue. What mindfulness does is help you to get better at handling the negative thoughts and feelings that are keeping you awake at night.
Mindfulness isn’t about getting rid of unpleasant thoughts and feelings, but rather helping you to get less bothered or consumed by them. It gives you that little bit of distance from difficult emotions and helps with letting them come and go without buying into them. When you get better at handling that inner turmoil, you start to unintentionally feel more grounded and less caught up in your thoughts and feelings, and that’s when sleep becomes more likely.
If you’ve tried mindfulness before, listened to some guided audios, or tried meditation, but it didn’t really solve the sleep problem; that’s okay and normal. For insomnia mindfulness needs to be applied in a very specific way, which doesn’t necessarily encompass meditation. You don’t need to be a zen master to use mindfulness to sleep okay and just need to learn some basics.
With Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for insomnia (ACT), you can learn some simple techniques to make mindfulness work for you, getting your sleep back on track without any need for any meditation. Some elements of ACT can involve some light meditating, but meditation is not a core part of ACT and isn’t used for most people.
If you’re naturally skeptical, thinking mindfulness sounds a bit soft, fluffy, hippy or strange, or if it just doesn’t seem like your thing, I understand. I used to feel the same way. The term “mindfulness” might bring to your mind images of Buddhism, intense meditation or other things that might turn you off. But it’s not about that at all.
Equally if you’ve tried mindfulness before and found it too hard, it can be something too easily written off as ‘not for me’. For both of these reasons I sometimes don’t even like to use the word ‘mindfulness,’ as it can put people off who’ve got the wrong connotations about it. ACT aims to make it super simple, and I think you’ll be surprised at how effective it can be.
In short, mindfulness isn’t some mysterious or complicated practice. Mindfulness has become a key tool used in many highly effective psychotherapeutic techniques to treat a variety of mental health conditions. It has also been repeatedly backed by scientific evidence to show how effective it can be for insomnia. In ACT, mindfulness is used as a set of practical tools to help you manage those thoughts and feelings that are keeping you awake, without having to become a mindfulness or meditation expert.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness can be a tough word to define, and it can be even more challenging to understand intellectually. Therefore bear in mind that mindfulness is best understood experientially, i.e. doing and experiencing it yourself, as reading about it will only get you so far. Just like learning to drive a car, you could read about what it’s like and what it involves and we could talk about it all day long, but you won’t actually get the feel of it until you’re behind the wheel.
This doesn’t mean you have to fully immerse yourself into experiencing mindfulness all the time to fix your sleep problems. Fortunately it’s much simpler than that. The following will hopefully break mindfulness down into a way that hopefully makes sense.
Think of mindfulness as being aware of what’s happening right now in the present moment. It’s paying attention to your thoughts and feelings, just as they are happening, without judging them as good or bad. Noticing whichever thoughts and feelings show up for you in each moment. Imagine you’re a scientist looking at these thoughts and feelings you’re currently experiencing for the very first time, observing them with openness and curiosity.
For example, right now if you’re feeling up to it, stop reading this article and just tune in to your body for 30 seconds. Scan it to notice how you’re feeling in this moment and try to be open toward and curious about the feelings you come across. Next, for another 30 seconds start to notice what thoughts are currently running through your mind, if any. Perhaps try labelling the thoughts and feelings that do show up.
Why is this important? Well, by noticing our thoughts and feelings we start to create a little bit of distance between us and them and get a slightly different perspective of them. We get better at not letting thoughts and feelings have so much control over us and get less caught up in them. Although this does take a bit of practice and isn’t an instant fix, mindfulness helps us to learn to let go of the bad thoughts and feelings that keep us up at night like stress, worry or panic.
It’s very easy to get wrapped up in the bad thoughts and feelings we’re experiencing, whilst not being aware of everything else going on. Mindfulness helps us to change this. Through mindfulness we also get better at shifting our attention from the difficult thoughts and feelings we’re experiencing towards noticing all the other things happening in our bodies and in the environment around us. It might be that we start to notice what position our bodies are in; what feelings of touch we’re experiencing; what sounds we can hear; how different parts of our body feel etc.
Mindfulness also helps us to act accordingly on our values and get better at doing the more important things in our lives. It helps us to look at our thoughts and feelings, not from them. By getting less caught up in our heads, this allows us to more easily put our focus and attention towards the important things in front of us and act as the sort of person we want to be. It also means we can get better at responding to thoughts in a way that we chose to, such as if they’re helpful or not, without letting them dictate our actions.
If that still sounds complicated, which if you’re anything like me it will do, here’s a hopefully simple metaphor to help you understand mindfulness.
The sky and the weather metaphor
Imagine the sky. You see the blue part at the top and clouds that come and go underneath it. Now, think of the blue sky as you, the bit that notices and observes what you’re experiencing, and the clouds beneath the blue sky as your thoughts and feelings. The blue sky is always there, unchanging, watching the clouds float by. You’re always capable of noticing and observing the thoughts and feelings you’re experiencing at any given conscious moment. Looking at your thoughts and not from them.
The clouds, like your thoughts and feelings, are always changing, coming and going, never permanent. Sometimes clouds are small and white, like the everyday thoughts we hardly notice. Others are dark and stormy, like the fears and worries that grab our attention the most. But no matter what clouds are in the sky, the blue sky itself never changes. It’s always there, able to handle any weather that comes along. The weather can never damage the blue sky. Just like there is always a noticing part of our consciousness that’s able to observe our thoughts and feelings neutrally.
The trouble is, often we think we’re only the clouds and fully identify with our thoughts and feelings. We get consumed by and wrapped up in our thoughts and feelings and forget that we can just watch and notice them, like the blue sky watches the clouds as they pass by. The truth is, we always are the blue sky, able to see our thoughts and feelings come and go without getting stuck in them.
For example, imagine you have the thought “I won’t sleep tonight.” When this thought happens you might believe it to be true and get taken over by it. You might then give it fuel and start to catastrophise about what this will mean for you tomorrow, causing more worries and stress about sleep. At this point our minds tend to go into autopilot mode, worrying about sleep and other negative habitual patterns of thinking. We experience the same thoughts we’ve probably already had countless times, and they keep whirring around in our heads. This also typically stops us from being present and noticing everything else.
However, there is always the option to just observe the thoughts we’re having objectively as simply thoughts we’re having, like all the others, true or false, and let them go. Recognising a thought for all that it is, words and images randomly appearing in our minds, which we don’t have to give our full attention to.
Give this a go now if you like. For a minute or so just try to watch the thoughts flowing through your head. Noticing each time your mind produces a new thought and each time you get taken along by a thought.
The issue is our own minds easily get wrapped up in and consumed by bad thoughts and feelings when we can’t sleep. Through practicing mindfulness, we can learn to be like the blue sky, unaffected by the clouds beneath it. Even when we have negative thoughts and feelings that could affect our sleep, we can make room for them without letting them bother or overwhelm us and get in the way of a good night’s sleep.
And just like the sky can handle any weather, we can handle the ups and downs that come with poor sleep. We can continue to pursue what’s important to us in our daily lives, even when dark and stormy thoughts and feelings happen after a bad night and try to get in the way. By being mindful, we can become strong and unchanging, just like the blue sky above us.
By understanding that you’re the blue sky and not the clouds, you can observe your thoughts and feelings, letting them come and go, without getting tangled up in them and keeping you awake at night. Getting better at this isn’t easy, but it doesn’t require you to do lots of meditating either. Our bodies are biologically designed to naturally want to sleep and a sprinkling of mindfulness can give them that extra little bit of help. Through Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, you’ll learn simple tools and skills to practice this awareness and get good enough at it. ‘Good enough’ being the key phrase.
The London Underground metaphor
In case you’re either still puzzled by mindfulness or not quite convinced it’s for you, which would be understandable and admittedly the last analogy is a bit fluffy (if you’ll excuse the clouds pun), I have another simple way to explain how it works and can help you sleep. Since I am the “London Sleep Coach,” I’m going to use the London Underground to help explain.
Imagine you’re at a London underground tube station. Picture yourself standing on the platform, waiting for the train. Soon, a tube will arrive at the station, just like a thought popping into your mind does too. You, standing there on the platform, represent where your mind’s focus and attention is. You notice a thought has popped into your head, just like you’d notice a tube arriving at the platform.
Now, imagine trains coming and going one after the other. They’re like the thoughts in your mind that just keep on relentlessly popping into your head. Some of these thoughts are good, some bad and some are neutral. They keep appearing in your mind whether you want them to or not.
When a train stops at the platform, you can choose to get on and be carried away by it. Similarly, when a thought enters your mind, you can decide to buy into it, go along with it and possibly let it consume you, especially if it’s an emotive one. Getting wrapped up in a thought in this analogy is akin to getting on the train. But you don’t have to! You have a choice and could also stay on the platform and let the train go, waiting for the next one to appear. This is like noticing a thought and letting it go, without getting caught up in it.
This is where mindfulness skills come in handy. It helps us to stay on the platform, or in other words, to not get lost in or consumed by your thoughts. You might be wondering how this relates to sleep? Imagine that those thoughts are the negative ones keeping you awake at night. The anxious, worrisome, fretful and relentless problem solving ones. Mindfulness offers a way to let these thoughts go, stopping them from getting us so wound up and stressed and therefore not letting them affect our sleep so much.
Tubes will keep on relentlessly arriving at the tube station, much like thoughts will keep on relentlessly popping into our head about sleep or worries in life. Despite how hard we might try, we can’t stop this from happening. However, mindfulness offers a way to reduce the negative impact these thoughts have on our sleep.
Remember, reading about mindfulness is one thing, but this will only get you so far. Doing and experiencing it will make it all the more clearer. If it still seems too complex and like something that you think you’d struggle to do, that’s a normal reaction. Developing mindfulness skills can take patience, practice and isn’t going to happen over night.
Applying mindfulness to help insomnia requires specific guidance and you shouldn’t expect that by simply practicing mindfulness on its own insomnia will improve. Equally don’t forget that mindfulness is not there to fix your sleep and instantly make you fall asleep. It’s there to help you get better at experiencing difficult thoughts and feelings at night and allowing them to happen without preventing you from sleeping or making the most of the following day.
Lastly, mindfulness is one part of ACT, but it is by no means all of it. ACT offers an effective approach at teaching you enough basic mindfulness skills which are tied in with other techniques to get your sleep back on track swiftly.