I used to have great difficulty getting to sleep at night. Sometimes my mind would be racing, usually about something that was troubling me. Sometimes there was nothing much going on in my mind at all, but sleep would simply refuse to arrive. The worst times were when I craved sleep, but as I began to drift and dream imagery started to arise, I’d get excited and wake up again.
But that was then. Nowadays I’m usually asleep within minutes—even seconds—of my head hitting the pillow.
Along the way I built up a toolkit of techniques to help me disengage from the kind of mental activity that gets in the way of sleep and that causes insomnia.
1. Mindfulness of the body
Mindfulness reduces mind-wandering. It helps us spot when our thoughts are unhelpful, so that we can disengage from them. That includes things like recognizing that anxious thinking is stirring up our emotions and keeping us awake. So we recognize unhelpful thinking and let go of it. But the mind has to be engaged with something else instead, so we turn our attention to the body.
Being mindful of the body has a calming effect. Because the mind is engaged with being attentive to the physical sensations arising in the body, it has less bandwidth available for engaging in the kind of anxious thinking that keeps us awake. And the rhythms of the breathing can help soothe us.
So we can scan the entire body, right down to the toes, simply being aware of all the sensations arising there.
Even if there are unpleasant sensations in the body, such as a twisting knot of anxiety in the gut, mindfulness helps us learn to accept them without reacting. Without mindfulness what normally happens is that the unpleasant symptoms of anxiety cause the mind to go into overdrive, which perpetuates our anxiety. Mindfulness of the body helps to break that cycle, allowing us to come back to a state of rest and relaxation, which promotes sleep.
2. Mindfulness of the breathing
The breathing is of course part of the body, but I single it out here because another approach to mindfulness is to be aware of the sensations of the breathing in particular.
Anxiety tends to bring our attention up into our heads, and to the thoughts we’re having there. Often when we’re anxious we almost forget that we have bodies! Anxiety also tends to cause our breathing to be rapid and shallow, and to take place more in the chest than in the belly.
So it’s particularly helpful for us to take our attention to the rise and fall of the belly. As well as taking our attention further away from the head, and from our thoughts, this has a soothing effect. It promotes activity in the parasympathetic nervous system, which again brings us back to rest and balance—and therefore to sleep.
3. Mindfulness of weight
Particularly if you have physical restlessness, it can be very helpful to pay attention to the weight of your body pressing down into your mattress. I’ve found that it’s particularly helpful to imagine that my body is becoming heavier and heavier, as if gravity is gradually increasing up to perhaps two G, at which point it’s as if I’m pinned to the bed..
This sense of weightedness promotes a sense of surrender, which helps with letting go into sleep. It promotes physical stillness, which also helps. And it’s a form of body awareness, which itself helps with going to sleep.
Sometimes when we’re sleepless we have a lot of stimulating mental imagery running through our minds, and a useful way to divert attention from that is to visualize something soothing and even a little boring. I often imagine that I’m watching rain pattering on woodland leaves on an overcast day. This has the advantage of involving nature, which is soothing. The emphasis is on the color green, which is one of the most calming colors there is. The imagery is beautiful, so it holds my attention, but it’s not stimulating in any way.
This is one of the quickest ways I know to get to sleep. Usually when I fall asleep, what happens is that nonsensical dream imagery arises, and my attention switches to that. That’s the point at which sleep happens. If I’m paying attention to the body, then sometimes the arising of dream imagery jolts me back to awakeness. However, if I’m already immersed in the world of imagery, then what happens is that the forest scene is seamlessly replaced by my dreams, and sleep happens very easily.
5. Slow down your inner chatter
Sometimes when I was unable to sleep, my mind would be chattering away to itself. Sometimes this would be because of anxiety and sometimes it would be because I was excited about something.
I found that if I slowed the pace of my inner speech, and also deepened it, then sleep would happen much more quickly. My own self-talk developed a soothing, droning quality. I’d literally bore myself to sleep!
6. Relax the eyes
One thing I’ve discovered is that there’s a correspondence between our physiological states and how we relate to our eyes. Think about the experience of daydreaming, when your mind is gently and aimlessly drifting in a relaxed way. Usually you’re staring into space, and not focusing on anything in particular, right?
When the eyes are narrowly focused, and the muscles around them tense, then we tend to be in a state of alertness, and even anxiety. On the other hand, when we allow our focus to be soft, and the muscles around the eyes to be relaxed, this promotes relaxation.
It’s very easy to do this. With the eyes closed, just let the eyes be at rest, so that you become aware of everything in your visual field. You’ll probably notice that your breathing very quickly begins to slow and deepen.
7. To unwind, be kind
Lastly, general negativity can keep us awake, whether that’s worrying, judging, irritability, blaming, craving, despondency, or whatever.
And this can become cyclical, so that we start to worry or judge ourselves for still being awake. If we become more emotionally at ease with ourselves, then we break this cycle and it becomes easier to fall asleep.
One of the simplest things to become more at ease is to remember what it feels like when we are kind. In particular, recall an experience of looking with kindness and affection. It can be a memory of looking at a baby or a pet. It doesn’t much matter. Just notice the emotional qualities of caring, kindness, appreciation, and so on, that arise as you recall a memory of this sort. And particularly notice how those qualities permeate the way you are looking.
Next, turn your inner gaze upon yourself, bringing those same qualities to bear upon yourself. Be kind. Be patient. Be forgiving. If you’re sleepless because there’s someone you’re upset with, then regard them with the same kindness.
You can of course combine two or more of these techniques together. For example you might adopt a loving gaze while also being aware of the body, and imagining that gravity has increased. Or you might relax the eyes as you pay attention to the breathing in the belly. Play around and see what works best for you at any given time.
Also, do persist when it comes to experimenting with these approaches. At first there may be times they may not appear to do much, but I’ve found that if you persist with them you train the mind to fall asleep quickly.