How to Use Mindfulness to Fall Asleep

The clock strikes 2 AM and sleep keeps slipping away each time you try to seize it. If worries of work, family, or finances keep you tossing and turning at night and make you feel like an extra on The Walking Dead during the day, you’re not alone. About 60 million US Americans suffer from a sleep disorder, with millions more suffering from sleep difficulties.  

The consequences of sleeplessness include increased likelihood of obesity, cancer, and depression, as well as decreased productivity and quality of life.1 Furthermore, sleeplessness ratchets up the chances of fatal accidents, so much so that the Center for Disease Control has identified lack of sleep as a public health concern.

Unfortunately, sleeping pills may take more than they give in the long-term. In fact, sleep-aid medication has been linked to increased risk of Alzheimer's. They’ve been shown to induce a state more akin to being knocked unconscious rather than entering into restful sleep.  

A Better Way

The good news is that mindfulness can offer a better option. One recent scientific study on older adults indicates that mindfulness-based treatment for participants showed substantial gains in sleep quality, yielding reductions in depression and fatigue – all without the side-effects of feeling like you've been knocked out. While the study’s sample size was small, the results show the promise for a non-pharmaceutical remedy to sleeplessness.  

Mindfulness can give relief from sleeplessness because it begins with acknowledging where you are. Accepting that you’re not sleeping is the first step toward getting to sleep. Indeed, trying your hardest to fall asleep will make it harder to get to sleep. Once you can acknowledge that truth, you can find ways to slip away into sleep.

3 Mindful Strategies to Deal with Sleeplessness

Below are three techniques that have allowed those who’ve taken our courses to slip away to sleep. Try one the next time sleep eludes you.

  1. Breathe slowly and deeply. Inhale slowly through your nose until your lungs are filled. There’s no need to hold your breath, so exhale slowly out your mouth next. Count silently to yourself as you breathe in and out, starting over with each breath. Feel free to place a hand on your stomach to notice whether your lower abdomen is expanding with each breath. The deep breathing triggers the vagus nerve, the main nerve in your parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for rest and rejuvenation. Repeat as needed.

  2. Do a body scan. Focus on the physical sensations in each part of your body, beginning with your feet and slowly working your way up all the way to the crown of your head. Don’t try to change anything; just notice whatever is there. See if you can hold your whole body in awareness, and on each out breath, imagine your body sinking into your bed.  

  3. Practice gratitude. Silently list off what you’re grateful for, starting with what you’re grateful you have, and then moving on to what you’re grateful that the people you care about have. Come up with as many as you can. You’ll be so focused on being grateful that you won’t notice sleep sneak up on you.

1 Institute of Medicine. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2006.