Meditation for sleep: Tips & advice for beginners
Ever find yourself lying in bed, struggling to sleep? Your mind is racing with thoughts of unfinished tasks, what your next week looks like and even that one awkward joke you said at a friend’s birthday 5 years ago? We’ve all been there.
Your psychological state of mind can negatively impact the quality and quantity of sleep you get. So the question remains – how can you calm a racing mind and get some much needed sleep?
The answer could lie in meditation.
Meditation is a helpful tool to aid sleep. It can train you to let go of any negative thoughts bouncing around your mind, helping you to stay in the moment. This helps quieten the mind and eases you into rest.
To understand how meditation can help you sleep, it’s important to understand what causes sleeplessness and what happens to your mind and body when you move from consciousness to sleep.
Common causes of sleeplessness
According to a survey of more than 20,000 people in the UK, a ‘racing mind’ is the main cause of sleeplessness. Worries about the day’s events and plans for tomorrow was identified as the most common thoughts keeping us awake at night.1 Here are just a few of the thoughts that bounce around our sleepless minds:
- Trivial things of no importance
- How long have I been lying awake/ how much sleep will I get?
- Thoughts of the future
- Events from the past
Meditation helps you to release yourself from worrying or racing thoughts, and has also been shown to aid anxiety, depression and stress when practised regularly.
What happens to your mind and body when you sleep?
To help you understand how meditation can positively influence your sleep, it helps to understand what happens to your body and mind when you transition into sleep.
Some of the physiological and mental changes that occur as you slip into the different stages of sleep include:
- Melatonin levels increase (a hormone which tells your body it is time for sleep)
- Your breathing becomes slower and deeper
- You heart rate decreases as you fall asleep, and even more in deep sleep
- Your blood pressure decreases
- The muscles in your body relax
- Your brain waves slow
Your body would struggle to transition into the different stages of sleep without these important physiological changes. If your breathing is too fast, heart rate too high or mind racing at a thousand miles an hour, it can make it more difficult to fall asleep. Anything that promotes these positive physiological and mental changes can help promote a better night’s sleep… and that is where meditation comes in.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a mind and body practice that is known for inducing calmness and physical relaxation.5 There is evidence meditation can also improve psychological balance, help people cope with illness, and improve overall health and well-being.5
There are many different types of meditation, but most have four elements in common:5
- A quiet place with few distractions
- A comfortable posture (i.e. sitting, lying down)
- A focus of attention (e.g. on your breath, your senses, images)
An open attitude (e.g. letting distractions or thoughts come and go naturally without judging them).
How can meditation help sleep?
Meditation is a technique that has been shown to increase sleep time, improve sleep quality, and make it easier to fall (and stay) asleep.6
Meditation, the practice of intentionally quieting or focusing the mind, creates physiological changes that are similar to those that happen in your body during the early phases of sleep such as:7
- Reducing blood pressure
- Reducing heart and breathing rate
- Increasing melatonin levels
- Reducing cortisol levels (a hormone associated with stress)
As meditation helps reduce the stress hormone cortisol and promote a quiet mind, it has also been shown to help reduce stress, anxiety, and depression – which are known to negatively impact sleep.
Meditation tips for beginners
Some people have the misconception that when you first start meditating it is going to magically wipe your mind of the endless traffic of thoughts through your mind. In fact, there are types of meditation that encourage you to observe these thoughts instead of clear them from your mind, such as mindfulness meditation. It takes time and practice to train your mind to stop wandering.
The basics of meditation start with finding a comfortable place to sit or lie down, then when comfortable, close your eyes and breathe slowly and deeply. Start focusing your attention on your breath and if your mind starts to wander, simple bring your focus of attention back to your breathing. Meditation can start with as little as one minute, and with time, can be graduated into longer periods of time the more comfortable you get with each meditation practice.
Different types of meditation
There are many different types of meditation and it can be helpful to experiment with different practices until you find a technique which works best for you.
Here are some popular types of meditation practice:
Involves sitting silently and paying attention to thoughts, sounds, the sensations of breathing or parts of the body, bringing your attention back whenever the mind starts to wander. You don’t judge the thoughts or become involved with them. You simply observe and take note of any patterns.8 There is evidence that mindfulness meditation helps fight insomnia and improves sleep.9
Is a meditation that allows you to be guided by someone else, for example a meditation podcast, meditation apps, online video, or even a meditation class. The guide will take you step-by-step through the meditation so you can concentrate on relaxing, instead of worry about your technique. 10 Some people who choose to use guided meditation recordings at home find they fall asleep before the recording has even finished.
Also known as ‘Body Scan’ meditation. It is a practice aimed at reducing tension in the body and promoting relaxation which can be very helpful at promoting sleep. Sometimes this form of meditation involves slowly tightening and relaxing one muscle group at a time throughout the body.
A technique focused on enhancing feelings of relaxation, peace, and calmness by visualizing positive scenes or images. Examples of visualisation meditation include ‘Colour Breathing’ and ‘Goals Visualisation’.
There are different types of movement meditation and it is not all yoga and Tai Chi. It can be a gentle walk, stretching or any form of gentle, relaxing movement.
This type of meditation involves concentration. It is all about focusing your attention. Your focus may be directed to your breath, or on a sound, or even staring at something (e.g. a flame). Many people find it difficult to hold their focus for long before their mind starts to wander. With practice you will find you can focus for longer periods of time before distractions take over.
When to meditate for a better sleep
You may think that is for meditation to help sleep it must be done at bedtime. This does not need to be the case. There is evidence to show that practicing meditation during that day, ideally for 20 minutes, can help reduce insomnia, fatigue, and depression. 9
Other health benefits of meditation
Meditation has been shown to deliver other benefits beyond a better night sleep. When practiced regularly, meditation has also been shown to: 7,11, 12
- Decrease blood pressure
- Relieve stress
- Improve your mood
- Encourage positive emotional health
- Reduce anxiety
- Improve your attention and focus
- Help tackle addictions (e.g. stop smoking)
- Help reduce the perception of pain
Meditation is not a miracle cure, but there is certainly plenty of evidence to show that it may do some good for those who practice it regularly.
- The Great British Sleep Survey 2012 – Sleepio
- Insomnia – NHS
- Understanding Sleep – National Institute of Neurological Disorder and Stroke
- Meditation for sleep – Healthline
- Meditation in depth – National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Healthcare
- How meditation can treat insomnia – Sleep foundation
- Sharma H. (2015). Meditation: Process and effects. Ayu, 36(3), 233–237
- Mindfulness – NHS
- Mindfulness meditation helps fight insomnia, improves sleep – Harvard Health Publishing
- How to Get Started With Guided Meditation – VeryWellMind
- 3 Ways to Meditate for Better Sleep – Healthline
- Meditation: In Depth – National Centre for Complementary and Integrative Healthcare