Trouble Sleeping at Night? Learn How to Beat Insomnia through Mindfulness
Do you have trouble sleeping at night? Well, you’re not alone. Approximately 35 percent of adults suffer from insomnia, and among older adults that figure is much higher at 75 percent. So as you lie awake in bed at night wondering why you can’t sleep, just think: millions of other people are doing the exact same thing.
It’s frustrating. Your mind is racing and you don’t know why. You lie awake in bed for hours looking at the clock and calculating how many hours of sleep you’ll get if you fall asleep right then. It is only when your alarm is about to go off that you finally fall asleep.
Getting a good night’s sleep after a long day used to be something you looked forward to. Now, your bed has become a torture chamber. You hope the problem will resolve itself, but it never does.
While you may think that not sleeping well at night is mostly an inconvenience, there can be some serious health consequences. Chronic insomnia can increase your risk of major health problems, such as high blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease. It also puts you at greater risk of mental health disorders, such as anxiety and depression.
Fortunately, the mindfulness practice can help you overcome your insomnia in several ways:
- Help you identify the cause(s) of your insomnia
- Give you the inner strength to deal with the causes
- Calm your mind, lower stress and anxiety
- Ease physical discomfort
In this article, we’re going to examine what insomnia is, its health consequences, causes, and how to use mindfulness to overcome it. I will also include some tips and strategies for dealing with the causes. So if you’re struggling with insomnia, chance are good that you can beat it, and return to enjoying a good night’s sleep.
What Is Insomnia?
Insomnia is generally defined as the inability to get the sleep you need in order to feel refreshed the next day. There are several types of insomnia:
- Acute insomnia. This is when you have short-term sleeping difficulties that don’t last more than a few weeks.
- Chronic insomnia. When you have difficulty sleeping 3 or more times a week, and the problem lasts 3 months or more.
- Onset insomnia. This is when you have difficulty falling asleep.
- Maintenance insomnia. This refers to the difficulty staying asleep once you fall asleep.
- Behavioral insomnia. This type of insomnia applies to children. It is when they consistently have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep, or refusing to go to bed.
Insomnia can also be either primary or secondary. Primary insomnia refers to sleeping difficulty that doesn’t seem to have a clear cause. Secondary insomnia has an identifiable cause, such as a health or mental health condition. In most cases, there are underlying causes whether medical or not. Often the causes are simply poor sleep habits.
Effects of Insomnia
Insomnia can affect your life in so many ways. First, it can disrupt your daily life. It can:
- Make you irritable
- Strain your relationships
- Lower your performance at work or school
- Lower your sex drive
- Impair your judgment
- Diminish your memory and cognitive abilities
- Increase risk of accidents at home and auto
- Shorten your life expectancy
Second, insomnia can affect your mental health, leading to:
Third, insomnia can have a serious impact on your health. According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), insomnia puts you at greater risk for:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Weakened immune system
The weakened immune system can leave you vulnerable to any number of diseases, including cancer. It will also slow the healing from injuries and recovery from medical conditions.
Overall, there are many health consequences of insomnia that will diminish your quality of life. So it’s vital that you get a handle on the problem. Let’s look at some of the causes.
Causes of Insomnia
There are many potential causes of insomnia. They range from simple behaviors to more complex medical conditions. In addition, there may be multiple causes of your insomnia. So in order to overcome it, you will need to identify and address each one. Here are the main causes:
Age. It is common for people to experience sleeping problems when they get older, as their sleeping patterns change. Older adults also tend to have more health issues, such as chronic pain, that make it difficult to sleep.
Gender. Women are twice as likely to suffer from insomnia than men. Changes in hormones during the menstrual cycle and menopause are responsible for difficulty sleeping. When leading up to menopause, hot flashes can make it difficult to sleep. Also, research shows that lower estrogen levels can contribute to sleeping difficulties in postmenopausal women.
Stress and anxiety. While insomnia can lead to stress and anxiety, they are also causes. We all experience stress and anxiety from home, work, or school. Some may be temporary, and others long-term. We also experience unexpected events, such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or the loss of a job, that can dramatically increase our stress levels. How we cope with these events will determine how they affect us.
Depression. Many people who suffer from depression have trouble sleeping. Part of it is due to a chemical imbalance in the brain that affects sleeping patterns. The other part is the troubling thoughts that prevent the mind from calming down at bedtime. Insomnia can also be a symptom of other mood disorders, such as bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Medical conditions. There are various medical conditions that can contribute to insomnia. They include, chronic pain, breathing difficulties, sleep apnea, acid reflux, diabetes, cancer, overactive thyroid, and more. If you are having any of these medical issues, consult with your doctor to address it.
Medications. Various medications, whether prescription or over-the-counter, can cause insomnia. The most common prescription drugs that can disrupt your sleep are allergy medicines, antidepressants, and heart and blood pressure medicines. Some pain medications, decongestants, and weight-loss pills contain caffeine and other stimulants. Antihistamines can make you drowsy at first, but they can also cause frequent urination.
Obesity. Obesity can change the metabolism and/or sleep-wake cycles causing the quality of sleep to diminish. In addition, the physical effects of the extra weight can affect sleep quality. People who are obese can also suffer from breathing difficulties, such as sleep apnea, that can disrupt sleep.
Related article: “Weight Loss Through Mindfulness: The Science Confirms It”
Overactive mind. Some of us have an overactive mind. The reason is that we are over-stimulating our mind with too many activities, and often right before bedtime. In addition, we are surrounded by background noise and images that further stimulate it. Each of these activities and sensory stimuli begins a chain of thoughts. As we go through our day, all the mental stimulation gets our mind going faster and faster, which makes it hard to sleep at night.
Using electronic devices. Research has shown that light of any kind can suppress melatonin, the hormone the brain produces at night to induce sleep. In recent years, the screens on our electronic devices have become brighter with the addition of powerful LED lights. So if you’re using electronic devices with LED screens close to bedtime, you’re confusing your brain into thinking that it’s time to be awake.
Stimulants. Many of us enjoy beverages with caffeine in them, such as coffee, tea, soft drinks, and energy drinks. They give us a nice boost to help us get through the day. However, too much or too close to bedtime can disrupt our sleep. You may be able to fall asleep after drinking coffee, but you could be restless and wake up early.
Alcohol and nicotine. While alcohol is a depressant, it will disrupt the normal sleep cycle. It prevents you from reaching the deeper stages of sleep that are necessary for adequate rest. So that drink before bedtime will help you fall asleep, but it will prevent you from getting a good night’s sleep. Nicotine is a stimulant and will also disrupt your sleep, even though it may help you relax.
Eating before bedtime. Eating a large meal close to bedtime can disrupt your sleep, as your body is working hard to digest the meal, and the high blood sugar can make you feel anxious and restless. On the other hand, not eating at all will also disrupt your sleep, as the hunger can make you uncomfortable. Furthermore, when you sleep at night, your body is performing repairs from the stress placed on it the day before, and it needs nourishment and fuel to perform these repairs.
Sleeping environment. The sleeping environment can have a significant impact on sleep quality. Ideally, when we sleep we want our room to be quiet, dark, at a comfortable temperature, and free of distractions. So if you live in a noisy area, the sun shines in your room before you need to get up, your room is too warm or too cold, or you have pets or electronic devices in your room, then chances are one or more of them are going to disrupt your sleep.
Other causes. There are several other causes of insomnia, such as pregnancy, restless leg syndrome, irregular sleep schedule, jet lag, and strenuous physical activity near bedtime.
How Mindfulness Can Help You Sleep Better
The mindfulness practice can be instrumental in helping you deal with your insomnia. There are four main ways the practice can help:
1. Identifying the cause(s) of insomnia
Sometimes the cause of your insomnia is easy to identify, such as drinking too much caffeine, and all you have to do is cut back some. But other times, the cause may not be so obvious, and there may be multiple causes. In such cases, you will need to examine your lifestyle to determine which behaviors and conditions are contributing to your insomnia. The more self-awareness you have, the easier it will be to identify the causes, and the mindfulness practice can help you develop this self-awareness.
2. Develop the inner strength to deal with the causes
Some of the causes of insomnia are a matter of changing poor sleeping habits. However, some habits aren’t so easy to change, such as enjoying a nice cup of coffee in the evening, or using electronic devices close to bedtime. Mindfulness can help you develop the inner strength to overcome undesirable habits. With more serious issues, such as physical and mental health, it’s important to consult with your doctor in order to address the condition. However, not everyone is willing to follow all of their doctor’s recommendations. Here again, the mindfulness practice can help you develop the inner strength to take good care of your health, so you can sleep better.
3. Calm your restless mind
Many people have an overactive mind. Sometimes it’s due to stress, anxiety, or depression. Other times it’s due to just too much sensory stimulation from too many activities and background noise. In these cases, mindfulness can help you in two ways. First, it will help you identify all the things that are agitating your mind, so you can reduce or eliminate them. Second, through mindfulness meditation you can give your mind a rest from the constant sensory stimulation, and allow it to settle down naturally. Mindfulness meditation will also reduce stress and anxiety.
Related article: “How to Slow Your Racing Mind”
4. Ease physical discomfort
Some people have trouble sleeping due to chronic pain, such as lower back pain. Recent studies indicate that mindfulness meditation can reduce the intensity and unpleasantness of pain. What this means is that people who meditate regularly feel less pain, and if they do, it’s not so uncomfortable, and this will make it easier to sleep at night.
How to Develop Mindfulness
Now that you are aware of how mindfulness can help you overcome insomnia, the question becomes: How do you develop mindfulness? There are three main ways: 1) mindfulness meditation, 2) investigation, and 3) writing meditation. Let’s examine each one:
As with most other forms of meditation, mindfulness meditation is basically giving your mind a rest from the constant sensory stimulation. It is more natural for our mind to be at peace than it is to be agitated. In other words, if we simply allow our mind to rest, our thoughts will settle down naturally.
To practice mindfulness meditation, find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed for a few minutes. Close your eyes, and begin observing your breath. Your mind will wander off almost immediately. That’s perfectly normal. When it does, just bring it back to you breathing. Sometimes it helps if you count your breaths 1-5 silently in your mind.
If you’re new to meditation, start by meditating for about 5-10 minutes at a time. As your mind settles down, gradually increase the duration of your meditation sessions. It’s important to meditate regularly, such as every day or every other day, so try to make meditation part of your routine. The more you meditate, the more it will help you sleep.
There are many other benefits of mindfulness meditation, such as improved health, mental health, relationships, and more. For example, you won’t feel as stressed as you did before, and therefore, won’t react so easily to other people’s behavior. Now, you may not always notice the difference, as the changes will seem natural. Just stay with it, and you’ll soon see how mindfulness meditation is improving different areas of your life. There’s more to mindfulness meditation, but this is a good start.
Related resource: To learn more about mindfulness meditation, check out “Mindfulness Meditation Made Simple: Your Guide to Finding True Inner Peace” (paperback)
As you practice mindfulness meditation, you will naturally develop greater awareness. However, you can speed up the process by consciously investigating your mind, body, and emotions. To do this, you need to bring yourself back to the present moment. One way is to stop whatever you’re doing, and take three mindful breaths. Once your attention is in the present moment, begin observing your mind, body, and emotions. Look for something that doesn’t feel right, then investigate it. What does it feel like? Is it discomfort, or pain? What is the source?
For example, suppose you have a pain in your neck or shoulders. Ask yourself in your mind: Is it tension or soreness, or maybe some muscle dysfunction? If it’s tension, then it may be related to stress. What’s causing you the stress? Is it something avoidable, or has a solution? Maybe it’s more a matter of how you’re interpreting a situation. How can you look at the situation differently? If you keep asking these questions, you prompt your mind to look for the answers, and very often your mind will find them. You can apply the same process to diagnose the cause(s) of your insomnia.
This is a technique I developed to help people reprogram their subconscious mind to overcome stubborn habits. What you do is copy a meditation script by hand over and over again. This creates new neural pathways in your brain for better habits. As you keep doing the exercise every day for a few weeks, the new pathways will become stronger than those of the bad habits.
One writing meditation, the loving-kindness meditation, is particularly transformative. In addition to calming your mind so you can sleep better, it will improve your mood, your relationships, and it will even help you overcome the wounds from your past. The exercise takes only 5-10 minutes a day, and you don’t need a quiet place to do it. The results are almost immediate. You’ll feel more relaxed and at ease, and you’ll see a noticeable difference in your demeanor after a couple of weeks.
Related resource: Download the loving-kindness writing meditation here. It’s free.
Applying Mindfulness to Insomnia
The process of identifying the causes of your insomnia is basically the same as outlined above, with one additional element—research. While mindfulness and investigation can take us a long way to understanding cause and effect relationships, it helps to do some research into the subject we’re trying to understand. This saves us the time and effort required to figure it all out by ourselves. Also, our research can confirm, or correct, the conclusions we arrived at on our own.
To illustrate how this process works, here’s how I applied mindfulness to a health issue. A couple of years ago, I was having problems with my stomach. I was constantly having nausea and upset stomach. I went to the doctor, and she diagnosed me with a common bacteria. So she prescribed two medications, an antibiotic and an acid reducer, whose side effects were the same as the symptoms of the bacteria, nausea and upset stomach.
After I completed the treatment, I still had the nausea and upset stomach. However, the doctor didn’t want to prescribe another round of antibiotics without confirming that I still had the bacteria. But that would be difficult because the test that diagnosed it could not confirm that it was gone.
The doctor recommended that I get an invasive and expensive procedure, as she was beginning to suspect something more serious, like cancer. But I didn’t believe it was anything that serious. So I did some research and found some natural treatments that were backed by scientific research. Here again the side effects were nausea and upset stomach.
To make a long story short, I examined and researched everything I ate, and found several foods that were contributing to the nausea and upset stomach. All in all, they included the original bacteria, side effects of the two medications (and one also had withdrawal symptom of upset stomach), three different supplements, several dairy products, raw broccoli, and grapes. Without having complex testing done, I had to trust that each treatment was working. Then I found ways to mitigate the effects of the foods that were problematic, such as cooking the broccoli and eating other foods in moderation.
It took a great deal of mindfulness and research over two years to figure it all out. Today I have no problems with my stomach, and the nausea is gone. Now, this was certainly a complex situation, and much of the research was obscure, but the process is the same. You shouldn’t have too much difficulty figuring out the causes of your insomnia, as I have outlined above the most common causes.
Strategies for Beating Insomnia
Here are some strategies for helping you overcome your sleeping difficulties. They are a combination of addressing the root causes and developing good sleep habits.
Begin by trying to identify any medical issues that may be causing your insomnia, such as chronic pain, breathing difficulties, sleep apnea, acid reflux, diabetes, overactive thyroid, or other. Then deal with them as best as you can. If you’re under the care of a doctor, follow their advice. Also, do your own research. There are supplements, super foods, and treatments your doctor may not be aware of. Make sure that any complementary treatments are backed by scientific research.
Next, examine your behaviors that may be contributing to your insomnia. These may include eating large meals too close to bedtime (or not eating at all), consuming stimulating beverages, using electronic devices before bedtime, or even using them when you wake up in the middle of the night. Remember, anything with an LED screen is going to keep you awake, including your television and cell phone. So give your mind some time settle down before you go to sleep, and turn off all electronic devices in advance.
The ideal sleeping environment is dark, quiet, at a comfortable temperature, and free of distractions. If the sun shines in your room before you need to get up, then you’ll most likely wake up early. If that’s the case, I suggest getting blackout curtains. Also, make sure your room is at a comfortable temperature, and free of anything that could wake you up in the middle of the night.
If you’re having trouble relaxing before bed, I suggest a short mindfulness meditation session to help calm your mind. If you go to sleep with a racing mind, you’ll likely have difficulty falling asleep, and when you do, you may have strange dreams throughout the night. The meditation will help you fall asleep, and sleep better.
Other forms of meditation, such as deep relaxation meditation, can also help you sleep. Some are specifically designed to help you fall asleep, and stay asleep.
Related resource: “Inner Silence: Guided Relaxation Meditations for Inner Peace and Restful Sleep” (audio CD)
Many people turn to sleep aids, whether prescription or over-the-counter, to help them deal with their insomnia. However, sleep aids are not a solution, as they only address the symptom, and not the underlying causes. Furthermore, most sleep aids, even natural supplements, will leave lethargic the next day, which is what you’re trying to avoid. The only natural supplement that I’m aware of that doesn’t have lasting effects is plain valerian root.
The pain reliever ibuprofen can also induce sleep without long-lasting effects. In addition, it helps relieve any physical discomfort. This is a good option for people with chronic pain, as it can take the edge off the pain. But be aware that ibuprofen is hard on the stomach and intestines and can give you an ulcer, even at the recommended dosage. So, use it in moderation.
Meal before Bed
As we discussed above, going to bed on a full stomach, or empty stomach, can disrupt your sleep. It’s a good idea to have a snack or small meal before bed. The ideal snack will consist of protein and complex carbohydrates. Your body needs the protein and energy to perform important repair work from the day’s stress. In addition, complex carbohydrates induce sleep and offset the slight stimulating effect of the protein. A protein shake supplemented with carbohydrates is a good choice. Avoid sugary foods and beverages, as they can make feel restless and anxious when you’re trying to sleep.
Insomnia is a serious problem, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. You already know that it can disrupt your daily life, making it difficult to function at work or school. But left untreated, it can seriously affect your physical and mental health. Overall, insomnia will diminish your quality of life, and even shorten it.
The mindfulness practice can be instrumental in helping you overcome your insomnia. Not only will it help you relax and better cope with stress and anxiety, but it will also help you diagnose the root cause(s). With mindfulness you can gain a better understanding of how your body and mind work, so you can see what’s contributing to your insomnia. In addition, it will give you the inner strength to address it.
There are many other benefits of the mindfulness practice. It can improve your health, relationships, cognitive abilities, and even prolong your life. The mindfulness strategies outlined above can also be used to address other health concerns. This becomes more important as you get older and your health begins to decline.
So if you’re having difficulty sleeping at night, remember that you’re not alone. If about a third of all adults suffer from insomnia, that means you probably know several people with the same problem. If you follow these mindfulness strategies, you will most likely overcome it, and getting a good night’s sleep again will no longer be just a dream.
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