Meditation is one of the most powerful techniques you can use to help fall asleep. It’s also one of the safest and doesn’t require a prescription. Meditation can be done anywhere, and it only takes a few minutes for you to feel the difference.
Many people stay up late at night worrying about what needs to be done the next day. Meditation brings you back to the present so you can forget about what you cannot control and focus on the sleep you need. Here’s how to use guided meditation to improve your sleep.
Sleep meditation is no different than practicing regular meditation. The only difference is that you might decide to meditate at night while in bed or just before climbing in. The idea is to prepare yourself for sleep both mentally and physically by focusing on your breath and calming down the autonomic nervous system.
If you’ve never meditated before, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is. There’s no wrong way to meditate as long as you do it in a quiet space without distractions. Meditation asks you to focus on your breath and maybe a relaxing word or visual to bring about a sense of peace and calmness.
When your mind wanders elsewhere, your job is to redirect your thoughts to something more peaceful. You can even just focus on your breathing and nothing more. This type of “slowing down” before bed has been shown to help you sleep.
Research supports the theory that meditation is beneficial for improving sleep. According to a 2015 study, mindful meditation improves sleep and fights insomnia (1). The study found that adults who participated in standardized mindful awareness practices for two hours a day for six weeks reduced their sleep disturbances. They also improved their insomnia symptoms, stress, fatigue, anxiety and depression. Lastly, patients reduced inflammatory markers that may otherwise cause disease (1).
Study participants included 49 middle aged adults and other older adults who reportedly had problems sleeping. Half of the subjects completed a mindfulness awareness program that taught them how to meditate and focus on moment to moment emotions, thoughts, and experiences (2). The other half of the subjects were instructed to take a sleep education class that taught methods for improving sleep habits. Authors of the study concluded that mindful meditation practices could be used to improve daytime impairment due to lack of sleep and improve the quality of life in people with sleep disorders.
These results come at no surprise for Doctor Herbert Benson of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. He stated that mindfulness meditation is one of many relaxation processes that can be used to help enhance sleep. In the 1970’s, Doctor Benson coined the term “the relaxation response,” which occurs when the body enters a profound psychological shift that opposes stress. It is beneficial for easing anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, and pain.
A 2014 study conducted by Harvard researchers at the Massachusetts General Hospital investigated what happens to the brain during meditation. The eight-week long study found that meditation helps the brain rebuild its grey matter, which is a part of the central nervous system that is made of neural cells (3). Grey matter is responsible for stimulating chemical activity that routes stimuli to interneurons in the central nervous system (4).
The study performed magnetic resonance images (MRIs) on 16 participants two weeks before the study and then again after the study. Subjects were asked to meditate for 30 minutes each day by focusing on audio recordings that directed them through a series of mindfulness. Subjects concentrated on non-judgemental awareness of feelings, state of mind, and other sensations. Results showed that the grey matter density increased in the hippocampus, which is needed for memory and learning. Grey matter also increased in areas of the brain necessary for compassion, introspection and self-awareness (5).
According to senior study author and Harvard Medical School Instructor of Psychology Sara Lazar, the practice of meditation provides psychological and cognitive benefits that last all day long by offering a sense of peacefulness and relaxation. The study showed that meditation provides changes in the structures of the brain that make you feel better because you are spending more time in a relaxed state (5).
Guided sleep meditation asks you to spend time focusing on the present and being mindful of what’s around you. You are strengthening your brain and controlling your thoughts by learning how to push negative ones out and focusing on the positive.
Practicing mindfulness meditation requires you to focus on your breathing and bring your attention to the present without thinking about other stressors in the past or future. It breaks up any negative thoughts that cause more stress so that you can relax and drift off to sleep.
Research shows there are four main ways in which sleep medication affects your brain:
One of the main reasons why people experience insomnia is because they worry about not being able to fall asleep. Research shows that if you have insomnia, you may be experiencing excessive beta waves, which are also present when you’re awake. Beta waves are there when you’re engaged in mental exercises such as being alert or making decisions. They are also there when you’re depressed, stressed or anxious.
When you engage in worrisome thoughts or stress over your inability to sleep, you might be increasing your beta waves. If you’ve ever felt physically tired but were unable to “turn off your brain” at night, you might be experiencing an increase in beta waves. This vicious cycle keeps you awake when you want to sleep.
According to research, people who meditate may be able to calm their beta waves by increasing other brain waves, such as alpha, theta, and delta. These other brainwaves are responsible for promoting deep sleep and relaxation. They also help calm down the worrisome thoughts when you can’t sleep.
2. Meditation forces you to focus on the present instead of what you need to do tomorrow.
Modern day stress never lets us rest. We’re always plagued by what we did wrong today and what we need to do tomorrow. How can anyone sleep in this state of being?
Sleep meditation asks you to focus on the task at hand instead of what you need to do tomorrow by realizing that your day is over and it’s time to rest now. Mindfulness practices help guide your mind to a more peaceful and relaxed state by managing your thoughts when they become worrisome. Experts believe that you will be able to sleep once your mind is in a quieter place. In other words, sleep meditation helps you control your thoughts instead of allowing them to control you.
3. Meditation enhances melatonin production.
Melatonin is a hormone produced in the pineal gland of the brain that helps make you sleepy. When it’s dark at night, your brain releases melatonin into the bloodstream to help you relax. On the other hand, when your brain senses daylight, it stops making melatonin so you can get on with your day without feeling tired.
According to a report published by the Brainwave Research Institute, people who meditate have higher levels of melatonin than those who don’t. The report also found that when test subjects skipped their meditation practice at night, their melatonin levels suffered. Authors of the study concluded that daily meditation before bedtime increased melatonin levels (6). Another study found that people who practiced meditation had an average increase of melatonin production by 98 percent (6).
4. Meditation increases rapid eye movement (REM) sleep.
The average sleep cycle lasts from 90 to 110 minutes. Most adults experience five or six full sleep cycles at night. There are four sleep stages to be aware of:
The first three stages of sleep are non-REM. While all of the sleep stages are equally as important and provide many benefits, REM sleep is considered to be the deepest, most restorative form of sleep. It’s the stage of sleep in which dreaming occurs. It also tends to be the hardest sleep stage to wake from.
During a normal sleep cycle, your body spends a certain amount of time in each stage of sleep. But when you’re overly tired, your body tries to get to REM sleep as quickly as possible.
Your brain is very active during REM sleep. Some research shows it might be just as active as when you are awake. This is because your brain has a lot to do while you're in a deep sleep. It shrinks its brain cells by 60 percent so they can be detoxed, which is needed to fight disease and help you function at your very best.
A 2012 study found that people who meditate spend more time in REM sleep, which is thought to be due to a greater sense of consciousness (7). Authors of the study concluded that meditation alters the psychological functions that you experience during sleep. Benefits include developing a better mind and body harmony. It also opens up a wider scope for understanding the complex nature of sleep and consciousness.
Contrary to popular belief, there are many ways to meditate. Peacefully spending time concentrating on the present and redirecting your thoughts when they get away from you can get the job done.
You can practice sleep meditation by following two easy steps. First, pick a calming word or action to focus on. You may choose to focus on your breath, a calming word or sound such as “om,” a positive word or a soothing phrase such as, “I feel relaxed.” If you decide to focus on a phrase, sound or word, repeat it out loud as you breathe in and then exhale.
The next step is to redirect your thoughts as they wander elsewhere. When you’ve noticed that your mind has wandered even while repeating a calming phrase, stop for a moment and refocus on the task at hand. Practice this for several minutes a day and gradually work your way up.
Here are some other tips for using guided meditation to help you sleep:
Although meditating during any time of the day is beneficial, try to meditate right before bed if you want to fall asleep faster. This will help make sure you’re in a relaxed state before falling asleep. Meditating in the dark will also help increase melatonin production, so you’ll feel sleepy by the time you’re done.
Sit in a comfortable position on your bed and turn the lights off. Close your eyes and concentrate on your breathing for several minutes. You can even try counting or visualizing a peaceful image while breathing in and out. Do this for as long as you can until you feel tired enough to fall asleep.
2. Gently stretch while meditating in bed.
Along with focusing on your breathing, it might help to do some gentle stretching to relax both your mind and body. Sit on your bed with your legs straight out in front of you. Keep your back straight. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. As you exhale, reach your hands to your toes. Concentrate on your movements and feel the tension leave your body as you stretch.
While sitting in the same position, you can also perform side stretches. Reach your right arm over your head and bend to the left side. Exhale as you reach and hold this position for a count of five. Count out loud if you need to. Repeat on the other side. By the time you crawl under the covers, you should feel loose and relaxed with a clear mind.
3. Lay in bed and visualize a pleasant scenario.
If you’re already in bed or stressful thoughts wake you up in the middle of the night, you can meditate right there in bed. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Focus on a pleasant scenario such as the beach or a fun vacation that you had in the past. Redirect your thoughts as they creep back to stressful ones. This form of meditation helps you escape your own mind by allowing yourself to put negative thoughts away and focusing on self-assuring ones.
Remember that there is no wrong way to meditate as long as you are consciously redirecting negative thoughts to calming ones. Start by doing as much as you can and gradually work your way up. Don’t get discouraged if sleep doesn’t happen right away. Take a break and try again in a few minutes when you’re ready to practice sleep meditation again.