If you have to deal with difficult decisions and stressful situations on the daily, not to mention the dumpster fire that is the news cycle at any given moment, it’s not unusual to have anxiety and intrusive thoughts that keep you awake at night.
There are things you can do that help. For example, you can try cognitive behavioral therapy, which aims to transform your negative habits and thoughts about sleep into positive ones.
However, there’s another sleep-promoting technique you might consider: meditation. It’s a safe and accessible way to calm your ruminating mind, and there are plenty of free apps you can use to make it easier to do.
“Meditation can really help with navigating stress in terms of calming the body down,” said Cassandra Carlopio, a licensed psychologist in Australia and a meditation teacher focusing on sleep. “It can help with shifting focus away from anxiety about sleep, or what we affectionately call ‘bedtime thought,’ which can be very stressful.”
Meditation helps you connect to the present moment and clear your head of worrying or stressful thoughts, and it can help you manage emotions that may cause daytime fatigue and disturb your ability to sleep at night.
Still, “meditation is not a wonder drug that fixes all sleep issues, which are very nuanced and complicated,” Carlopio told BuzzFeed News.
Why meditation may help you sleep
A major cause of sleeplessness is arousal in the brain triggered by the release of cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress-related hormones, according to Deirdre Conroy, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic at the University of Michigan.
Meditation targets this primal fight-or-flight response that causes our hearts to pound, minds to race, and muscles to tense.
With the help of deep, slow, and controlled breathing that accompanies most meditation techniques, as well as the calm environment and general stillness you create when meditating, you can lower your heart rate and blood pressure and activate your parasympathetic nervous system, which is associated with resting and digesting rather than fighting or fleeing, Conroy told BuzzFeed News.
“Often we're just going, going, going. We're not really focused on our heart rate until we get into bed at night and learn that our heart is racing and that we’re very tense,” Conroy said. “If we practice meditation more often, we're training our brain to be able to calm itself, like a self-management strategy.”
In one 2019 study, 40 healthy university students with no meditation experience had a bigger drop in saliva cortisol levels after 30 hours of meditation training over a four-day period compared to a control group with no training.
Another study included 54 adults with chronic insomnia who had meditation training over eight weeks that focused on either coping with stress or insomnia. The practice helped reduce the amount of time participants spent awake at night by an average of about 44 minutes post-treatment and about 50 minutes six months later. Meditation helped lower presleep arousal and insomnia severity too, according to the 2014 study published in the journal Sleep.
Some research also suggests meditation can even physically change your brain in ways that could improve sleep quality by giving you the power to better regulate your emotions.
In a 2012 study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers compared brain images of 50 adults who had meditated routinely for years or even decades with 50 adults who didn’t meditate regularly. They found that those who practiced long-term meditation had more gyrification, or folds in the cerebral cortex, the brain’s outer layer. The more area in these grooves, the more brain surface and neurons that process information, although the study couldn’t determine if meditation had led to the brain changes.
A separate study published in 2012 found meditation may affect how your amygdala — the part of the brain that processes emotions — is activated not only during the practice, but also after it’s done.
Aside from aiding sleep, meditation has also been associated with reducing pain caused by some illnesses, the craving to smoke cigarettes, and stress-induced inflammation that can contribute to a number of diseases and conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, and high blood pressure.
How to use meditation for sleep
There are two main ways you can use meditation to improve your sleep, according to Carlopio, the meditation expert.
First, you can practice it throughout the day to help manage your stress and anxiety so you’re more relaxed by the time you go to bed. Carlopio said you can do this anytime, like during your lunch break at work.
You can also meditate at night right before you go to sleep, either on the floor next to your bed or even lying in it. If you’re up for it, you can guide your own practice or get help from an app or video.
Most techniques and traditions start with focusing on the breath “because it happens in real time,” Carlopio said. Doing so keeps your attention away from random thoughts and on the pure sensation of inhaling and exhaling.
Many people believe meditation requires you to “think of nothing,” which isn’t actually the case. Instead, as thoughts arrive and your attention wanders, you try to observe them without judgment or emotion and gently return your mind to your breath or whatever else you choose to focus on, like sounds or other sensations.
Another type of self-guided meditation is a body scan. You can start at the crown of your head or tip of your toes and slowly relax each body part as your focus moves up or down, “like a flashlight from body part to body part,” Carlopio said. You should pay attention to any temperatures, tingles, or other sensations. (I like to imagine dozens of flowers sprouting and filling each limb as I shift my attention.)
Some people also enjoy guided imagery, Carlopio said, though she admits it’s not for everyone. Guided imagery involves picturing yourself in a comforting place; maybe it’s a dense forest clouded in misty fog or a sunny beach with waves crashing at the shore. It should involve all five senses, she added.
“You start to drift from this tangible world that we're in to a little bit more of a dreamlike land, and you're not focused on the things that you're worried about,” she said. But while some people are more “imagery-orientated,” others may find the technique distracting.
Listening to guided meditations is another way to doze off, said Carlopio, who added it’s helpful as a sleep aid because you can follow instructions while focusing your attention on the present moment.
“But not all guided meditation is created equal,” she warned. “Some are designed to make you more focused, which is great during the day but not so great if you want to fall asleep at night.” Carlopio suggests finding guided meditations that are sleep-specific. Apps you can download on your phone are a good start.
There are plenty of options to choose from, such as Aura, Insight Timer, Headspace, and Calm, many of which offer a range of meditations with teachers who have diverse accents, techniques, and backgrounds. You can also watch guided meditations on YouTube or directly seek out an expert’s help either solo or in group sessions.
If you plan on using your phone to play the meditations, Carlopio recommends having it set up before you settle down so you don’t have to scroll through your phone’s bright screen in the dark. (Blue light from digital screens can actually make it harder to fall asleep.) You may also want to put your phone on silent, set the volume low, and turn off notifications to reduce distractions.
She also recommends setting realistic goals when starting out. For most people, that means meditating for about five minutes a day, but it may take longer depending on the type of technique you’re using and the reason you’re using it.
What to expect as a meditation beginner
If you take away anything from this article, let it be this: Meditation takes practice, and you may not “get it right” the first time because there’s no specific way to do it; it’s deeply personal. “There are as many ways to meditate as there are people,” Carlopio said.
She likens trying meditation for the first time to trying a new sport. “You don’t just pick up a bat and expect to hit the ball perfectly,” Carlopio said. “You’ve had your mind functioning a specific way for your entire life, and then all of a sudden you want to learn this new skill. It could be quite a rude awakening at the beginning.”
In fact, one study found that advanced-level meditators spent more time in REM sleep — which is important for learning and memory — woke up less during the night, and spent less time in lighter sleep stages compared to beginner and nonmeditators, suggesting it may take some practice before you can reap the benefits of meditation for sleep.
You may even feel a bit uncomfortable during your first tries because you start to notice tension and certain thoughts that are hard to process. “That’s totally normal,” Carlopio said.
“I always encourage people to approach meditation with a sense of curiosity, kindness, and understanding,” she said. “It’s about consistency and not expecting yourself to be really ‘good at meditation.’”
Even Buddhist monks who’ve been trained in meditation since they were children, and who don’t deal with common stressors like traffic, for example, can’t maintain perfect clarity for more than a minute or two, Carlopio said. “For us to expect that we’ll be able to sit in pure equanimity with a quiet mind for any period of time is completely unrealistic.”
How well you’re able to benefit from meditation for sleep also depends on what’s behind your sleep issues. If you had a stressful day at work, you may be more likely to see an immediate improvement in mood and anxiety levels after meditating, Carlopio said. However, if you’re dealing with joblessness or other long-term issues, it may take longer for the practice to have an impact. “It takes time to build up resilience to manage ongoing, very real stresses,” Carlopio said.
Meditation isn’t for everyone
Sitting still while calming your mind doesn’t suit everyone, and it can feel particularly difficult in a society that values productivity over quiet contemplation. For some people with sleeping difficulties, exercising or talking with a therapist may be a better alternative.
Meditation also may not help you sleep if you have a health condition like obstructive sleep apnea, a disorder that causes repetitive blockages in airflow during sleep, or a noise problem like loud neighbors or late-night construction outside your home.
Conroy of the University of Michigan said it’s important to assess whether your sleep problems are interfering with your ability to get through your day. If so, you may need a different approach than meditation.
“It’s not always an obvious, easy fix. There's so much more than what meets the eye with sleep difficulties,” Carlopio said. “Don’t get disheartened about it and just keep seeking support until you get the issue addressed because it can make such a difference in being able to sleep well.”