What is Mindfulness anyways?
There are many buzz-words these days in the health and fitness field. Mindfulness is definitely one of those words, which is used so often it has become a cliché of its own. It is used so much, and in so many circumstances, that it can be difficult to parse out exactly what the word mindfulness means.
For many people, the term conjures up images of a monk meditating on a solitary stone, next to a river. Contrary to the stereotypes that may come to mind, mindfulness is much more accessible and much more practical than it is first perceived.
Mindfulness is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the quality or state of being mindful” and “the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis”.
For our purposes, the second definition is probably the most helpful. In particular, the portion of “heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts”. This is a succinct description of what mindfulness is, or more practically, how to practice mindfulness.
Being mindful means drawing heightened awareness to one’s internal state, and maintaining that awareness across time.
Psychological Risk Factors for Sleep
Psychological factors are some of the most common root factors for sleep disorders, and can include:
- Depression - see our article on depression and sleep
- Stress from marriage/job/health issues
It’s pretty common sense to understand how sleep and psychological state are tied together. Think of times when you are laying in bed and your mind is racing, mulling over the day, or reviewing details from that time you embarrassed yourself in high school. The mind is powerful, and can often interrupt or even ruin what would otherwise be a great night’s sleep.
Here are a few helpful practices for incorporating mindfulness exercises and practices into your evening routine, and for improving your sleep - especially if you are struggling with insomnia.
Body Scan Exercise
One meditative technique that is universally useful is called a “body scan”. In this exercise, the individual brings attention to each portion of the body, starting at the top of the skull and working slowly down all the way to the bottom of the feet. When each body part comes into awareness, the individual intentionally releases all tension in this area.
If you haven’t tried this, you are missing out. It is an easy way to calm the mind, relax the body, and break yourself out of those sub-conscious muscle guarding patterns that have been hanging around, potentially giving you more pain than you want.
Try doing a self-administered body scan before bed. If you are tired, or have had increased resting tension in your body, there’s a good chance you will fall asleep before you get to your feet!
Observe Your Breathing, and Count Your Breaths
A practice that is adopted from meditation traditions reaching far back in history, is the practice of simply counting your breaths - there are other breathing techniques for sleep too. As simple as that sounds, give it a try, and you will realize just how hard it is to maintain focus enough to count to 10!
Lay on your back, with the covers on or off, and take three deep inhales. Fully exhale each time. Then return to your normal breathing pattern. Don’t force air in, or force it out. Just relax and breath normally. Don’t judge your breath at all, don’t try and slow it down. Just observe.
How can you tell that you are breathing? Which muscles move? Does your belly move first? Or do your ribs expand first? Which areas do you feel the air moving?
Giving yourself time to just relax your mind’s eye and focus on your breathing has been shown to reduce resting heart rate, and
Counting Sheep (Yes, It Does Work)
This is a cliché for a reason! The old adage, just count sheep till you fall asleep. Or count seagulls flying by in your imaginary sky. Or count waves gently on the sand. Here’s the point of this exercise: imagine something predictable and rhythmic, and count it as it ebbs back and forth, or comes and goes predictably. Just like the sound of heart-beats helps calm infants in the womb, rhythmic images or sounds can be soothing just by imagining them.
Try this one out – think of the most relaxing or calming image you can conjure up. Maybe clouds passing in the sky, or a lighthouse turning it’s beam in the distance. Imagine it, and keep imagining it while you lay in bed. You may be surprised how relaxed you feel.
Mindfulness practices can help ease the mind and give it something to do that is productive for falling asleep. These practices are free, easy to do, and the only thing they require is directed awareness. Pretty good bang for your buck!