Series on Sleep- Part Three
Sometimes when our head finally hits the pillow at the end of the day and our body is ready for rest, our mind seems to have other ideas. Even if we have created the most restful environment (Part 1) and a healthful rhythm in our waking day (Part 2), we will inevitably find our mind at times chattering away as if the last thing that is wants to do is rest. It is possible that it has been racing like a mad demon all day, but it is when we finally slow down to tuck in for the night that we give notice to its warp speed.
Perhaps your mind indulges in rehashing the day, or prepping for the upcoming one. Perhaps its pre-bed tendency is to work through all the things that are causing you problems or pain in life... then trying to figure out how to resolve them... then doubting the resolution only to come up with more likely ineffectual solutions (because after all you are tired and problem solving before bed is typically not the best time to do so). Perhaps worry is your mind's pre-bed ritual. Then you look at the clock... 20 minutes... 40 minutes... 2 hours have gone by without sleep. This can ratchet up the intensity of seemingly forgone conclusions like "I am never going to sleep" and "I am going to blow [my meeting/presentation/being patient with my kids] tomorrow." Frustration (read: rage) and anxiety, and the accompanying tension and discomfort in the body understandably show up.
Therefore, it can be helpful to consider what thoughts our minds are thinking, and whether these thoughts are moving you closer to or further away from a restful nights sleep. Once we are aware of our thoughts and their nature, then we have the space to make a helpful and healthful choice about what to do.
Which of the thought patterns I ran through above are helpful to indulge in when we are trying to settle in for sleep? Likely none. Once we realize this, the tendency is to then try not to think the unhelpful thoughts. However, in my entire life and career, I have not figured out any way to actually stop my mind from thinking.
So what to do? Here comes the trick: Trying to stop thinking about something is different than trying to start thinking about something else. The intention of attention shifts. Try it out. Next time you are settling into sleep, instead of telling yourself to "stop worrying about not sleeping" (which can breed anger and tension), what would it be like to shift your attention to mindfulness-based practices that invite sleep. Just like an upward facing palm is more effective at catching a butterfly than grasping for one, you can shift your intention to invite a restful night's sleep for both your mind and body.
Inviting Rest for the Body and Mind
Hopefully, incorporating the ideas from the previous two blog posts have helped to pave the path for settling into sleep. Still, the mind can remain pretty powerful, especially if it has been conditioned into any of the habits I listed up top. Like I covered in my previous posts, our mind is an association-making machine. If the mind starts to associate "bed" with "problem-solving," for example, it is going to take a bit (or maybe more) of intention and practice before a new, more easeful habit is established. When I notice that my mind is caught up in unhelpful patterns, I use the following mindfulness-based strategies to shift my intention to welcome sleep:
Breath and Counting: Sometimes all my mind needs is to simply rest on feeling the natural rhythm of the breath to lull me to sleep. If I need a little more, I will begin to intentionally lengthen the breath, especially the out breath, to communicate to my body and mind, "all is well, time to sleep now." If my mind needs a little more to latch onto, I will practice counting the breath backward from 50 like this: inhaling, belly expanding, 50... exhaling, belly releasing 49...and so on all the way to 20 (if I am still awake). At 20 I shift to counting only on the exhale, and zero my focus in on the breath without counting. If I lose count, I simply begin again at 50.
Gentle Encouragement: When I catch my mind in the act of problem solving, to-do listing, or worrying, I step back and invite a small smile onto my face. It has become a little game for me now. Maybe I take a breath or two, then I have a gentle conversation with my mind. I say something like, "Thank you, mind, for thinking. You have been really helpful today. Now it is time for sleeping, so we will pick this up tomorrow after we both have some rest." Some people find it helpful to have a small pad of paper and pen next to their bed to jot down some thoughts for tomorrow, but chances are if you are meant to remember it you will. When I find myself caught up in worry about how lack of sleep will "ruin" the upcoming day, I say something encouraging that my mind can buy into like "I have done more on less." This phase has almost become a family mantra in a household of young children. Internal conversations like these can help to avoid adding suffering on top of the inevitable challenges a fitful night of sleep will bring.
Meditation: Sometimes focusing inward on the breath and mind can be a little too close for comfort. If that is the case, practicing a meditation such as Body Scan can be a particularly useful, especially when it starts by paying attention to sensation in the feet (where the attention is furthest from the head/mind). When my mind it particularly caught up in thinking, listening to an iRest Body Scan takes me out of my head and ultimately into sleep.
Get Up and Out: When the habit of thought is so strong in bed, what it might take to break it and make room for a new habit is actually getting out of bed. This can be an especially tricky concept to consider in the cold months up north when the bed is so warm and inviting, and the rest of the house is not. But when sleep has not arrived after 20-30 minutes of being in bed, the recommendation of sleep specialists is to break the bed/awake association by getting out of bed, and ideally the bedroom (which is now your sanctuary), and engaging in something relaxing. This can be reading a fluffy novel, sipping some room temp water or tea, or doing a restorative yoga pose like legs up the wall (note that I have intentionally left out TV and smartphone usage). Hopefully you can retreat to a separate, dimly lit space in your home, but a cozy chair and blanket in your bedroom will suffice. When you start to feel sleepy again, then return to your bed.
Sleep is a basic need that may seem simple, but it can become a complex problem. Habits, both thoughts and behaviors, that impede a restful night sleep can develop over months and years. Unexpected or anticipated stressors or traumatic events also may arrive swiftly to rob us of a good night sleep from time to time. Whatever the source, I am hopeful that some of the information and experience I have offered through this series proves useful for you at some time in your life. Know too that more support is out there in your community or through virtual coaching services, including working with me one-on-one. A good night of sleep can be like a balm to soothe your body, mind, and soul. It can make everything just a little bit easier, including your brave attempts to live the life you want to live.
You deserve it.