sleep

Mindfulness as an effective treatment for insomnia

Do you often lie in bed unable to fall asleep? Do you regularly wake up in the middle of the night or too early in the morning? If so, you are not alone. About one out of every 10 adults has chronic insomnia.

Insomnia causes daytime problems like feeling fatigued or being unable to concentrate. Insomnia is associated with accidents, low productivity and serious health problems. It is also an important risk factor for depression. The most common treatment for chronic insomnia is sleeping pills. People regularly take these pills for years, despite troublesome side effects, and without addressing the underlying problems that cause or perpetuate their insomnia.

A study by Cynthia Gross, PhD, indicates that mindfulness training may be an effective treatment for chronic insomnia, providing sleep benefits comparable to medication, but without the side effects.

Mindfulness is hypothesized to improve sleep by calming the body and stopping mind-racing. Approaches to improve sleep through mindfulness include establishing a mindful pre-sleep routine, not spending time awake in bed (e.g. getting up and doing yoga or something enjoyable if unable to sleep), and switching attention from wakefulness by focusing on the breath or practicing a meditation technique. In this way, mindfulness is hypothesized to facilitate disengagement from the concerns of the day, and enable sleep. Although studies by our group and others have frequently shown mindfulness training improves sleep quality, the impact of MBSR training on patients with insomnia had not been tested.

Gross conducted a small clinical trial to investigate MBSR’s potential as a treatment for chronic insomnia. The purpose of the study was to determine if mindfulness training would enable adults with chronic insomnia to obtain clinically meaningful improvements in sleep, comparable to the sleep benefits they might have obtained using an FDA-approved sedative.

Thirty adults with primary chronic insomnia were randomized into two groups: MBSR or pharmacotherapy. Mindfulness training was provided in the standard format of 8 weekly two-and-half hour classes plus a retreat. The pharmacotherapy group was prescribed 3mg of eszopiclone (LUNESTATM) nightly for 8 weeks, followed by 3 months of use as needed. A 10-minute sleep hygiene presentation (i.e. do not watch television in bed, keep the bedroom dark at night, etc… ) was given to all participants by staff at the start of study, and staff contacted everyone weekly so they could report any side effects.

Sleep was measured three ways. First, sleep patterns were objectively measured by actigraphy, a wristwatch-like device that measures movement. Second, participants kept daily entries in a log book called a sleep diary. Third, participants completed questionnaires containing widely used, validated sleep scales. Sleep measures were obtained before the interventions, and at two and five month follow-ups.

By the end of the 8-week program, MBSR participants significantly reduced the time it took them to fall asleep (-8.9 minutes), as measured by actigraphy. Based on sleep diaries, they fell asleep an average of 22 minutes sooner, and increased their total sleep time by about 34 minutes a night by 5 month follow-up. All standardized sleep scales showed large, statistically significant improvements from before MBSR to all follow-ups. No significant differences were found between the sleep outcomes of the MBSR and pharmacotherapy groups, although our sample size was not sufficient to establish that treatment effects were equal.

To evaluate clinical importance, rates of recovery from insomnia were examined. Before treatment, all participants met criteria for insomnia and poor sleep on the Insomnia Severity Index and the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index. By month five, half of the patients randomized to MBSR met stringent criteria for recovery from insomnia. Moreover, none reported adverse events and treatment satisfaction scores were high (averaged 8.8 on a 1 to 10 scale).

Although patients in the pharmacotherapy group obtained similar benefits to sleep outcomes, their treatment satisfactions scores were not high (average 6.1), most continued using sleeping pills to the end of trial, and several reported adverse events. Although sleep outcomes following MBSR compared favorably with conventional pharmacotherapy, the fact that only half of the patients in this study met criteria for recovery at follow-up suggests that there is still room for improvement in insomnia treatments.

Adapted from materials from The University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality & Healing.

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Waking up from the hindrance of sloth and torpor

Sleepy dog

Have you noticed that half the time when you ask people how they are, they answer with “tired”? We all seem to be tired, and when we sit down to meditate we may find that we nod off or sit there in a rather dreamy and unfocused state.

This is sloth and torpor — one of the states of distraction that we call the Five Hindrances. The schema of the Five Hindrances is a diagnostic tool that, combined with traditional “antidotes,” can help us to engage creatively with our experience in order to become more joyful, calm, and focused.

Most of the specific antidotes to the hindrances that I’m learned have been shared by other practitioners, or come from the commentarial tradition, but sloth and torpor is one of the rare hindrances where detailed instructions have been preserved in the original scriptures.

In talking with one of his chief disciples, Moggallana, the Buddha gave a list of suggestions for dealing with tiredness:

“Whatever perception you have in mind when drowsiness descends on you, don’t attend to that perception, don’t pursue it. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

One of the main applications of this is that when you’re tired, you shouldn’t focus on sensations low in the body. Rather than paying attention to the movements of the abdomen, which will further encourage sleepiness, you should notice sensations that are higher up in the body, like the sensations of the breathing in the upper chest and head.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then recall to your awareness the Dhamma as you have heard & memorized it, re-examine it & ponder it over in your mind. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

Reflect on the Dhamma — the Buddhist teachings — helps to focus the mind, preventing it from drifting aimlessly. Also, the reminder of a “higher purpose” may have the effect of inspiring us and of arousing our energy and enthusiasm. You can run through a list such as the Four Noble Truths, of the Five Precepts, or the Eightfold Path, and give yourself an inner Dharma talk. You can even imagine that you’re explaining the teachings to a friend. A lot of people don’t have these lists memorized, which is a shame, and I’d highly recommend the practice of committing these teachings to memory. The effort really pays off in terms of mental clarity.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then repeat aloud in detail the Dhamma as you have heard & memorized it. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

So, this is the same advice, but here we’re talking out loud, which is further going to prevent us from falling asleep. For obvious reasons this method isn’t very appropriate when you’re meditating with others.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then pull both your earlobes and rub your limbs with your hands. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

So now we move on to physical stimulation, which gets the blood flowing, and which encourages the release of endorphins. The most useful form of stimulation I’ve found is yoga stretches — particularly when we stretch the hamstrings or hip muscles.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then get up from your seat and, after washing your eyes out with water, look around in all directions and upward to the major stars & constellations. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

Water in the face gives us a creative shock to the system.

This suggestion also takes us more in the direction of paying attention to light, which is the next piece of advice we’ll hear. Also the suggestion of raising the head to look up is significant. When we’re tired, we look down and the chin drops. When this happens, a chain reaction is kicked off: our experience is visually darker, our breathing shifts to the abdomen, and the center of our awareness typically moves downward in the body. All of these things heighten our sense of sleepiness. These effects can be noticeable with even a tiny movement downward of the chin. Raising the chin can cause mental stimulation.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then attend to the perception of light, resolve on the perception of daytime, [dwelling] by night as by day, and by day as by night. By means of an awareness thus open & unhampered, develop a brightened mind. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

If you have candles on your altar, then you can open your eyes and look at a candle. You can visualize light. You can imagine that you’re looking at a bright light. Or, if you relax and just notice your field of awareness, you may notice that some parts of your experience are brighter than others. You can pay attention to those in order to keep yourself alert. This can actually be a meditation in its own right.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then — percipient of what lies in front & behind — set a distance to meditate walking back & forth, your senses inwardly immersed, your mind not straying outwards. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

It’s hard to fall asleep while doing walking meditation.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then — reclining on your right side — take up the lion’s posture, one foot placed on top of the other, mindful, alert, with your mind set on getting up. As soon as you wake up, get up quickly, with the thought, ‘I won’t stay indulging in the pleasure of lying down, the pleasure of reclining, the pleasure of drowsiness.’ That is how you should train yourself.

Finally, the Buddha recognized that sometimes you just need to take a nap! The strategies above can help combat and even overcome tiredness, but in the end you’re fighting your physiology, and your physiological needs are going to triumph.

There are other techniques for dealing with the hindrance of sloth and torpor, but the Buddha’s advice to Moggallana is still very relevant and useful.

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Mindful ways to get a good night’s sleep

Cat sleeping under duvet

Getting a good night’s sleep is vital to feeling energetic and making the most of our days. Some nights, even though we are very tired it is difficult to get to sleep because there is so much going on in our minds. When this happens, we feel stressed and that makes it even more difficult to get some rest.

Here is a list of techniques you may want to use to clear your mind before bed:

1. Write a list of what you need to do the next day. Having the list helps to let go of worrying that you will forget to do something.

2. Practice yoga. Practicing yoga takes concentration so it takes your mind off all the thinking that stops you from being able to go to sleep. Concentrating on the yoga asanas helps to quiet the mind and lying in savasana helps the body to relax.

3. Take a warm bath to relax muscles so that falling asleep occurs easily.

4. Read, but not in bed. Part of the reason we have trouble sleeping is because we work, check our cell phones, work on our computers and read in bed. In order to fall asleep easily, it is important to use bed for sleeping and sex and that is all. That way, when we go to bed, we associate bed with sleeping.

5. Listen to soothing music.

6. If you go to bed and cannot keep your mind from thinking too much,  get out of bed and do something (read, write a letter, fix a broken appliance) until you are very tired and then go back to bed.

7. If you are worried or concerned about something or someone, remember that worrying does not help the situation and think about all the times you worried and what you were worried about never happened.

8. Write down what has happened during the day that was troubling and what was positive – it helps to clear your thoughts about the day.

9. Write in a gratitude journal, a list of things you are thankful for.  Going to sleep in a positive frame of mind will bring sleep sooner and make dreams sweeter.

10. Visualize yourself on a beach, in the warm sun, listening to the waves of the ocean.

It is helpful to have a list of techniques that help to clear your mind before going to bed, so when you are in bed and cannot fall asleep, you know what to do rather than tossing and turning and feeling stressed because you cannot sleep.

I hope some of these techniques will work for you and you will sleep peacefully, have sweet dreams and wake up refreshed.

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First-time meditators: how to achieve that perfect state of “ohm”

The other day, I was conversing with a friend, telling her about how I’ve been having a difficult time sleeping as of late. I’ll maybe sleep four hours a night — and this is coming from someone who typically requires a solid eight. The stressors of life have been, unfortunately, taking their toll.

“Have you tried meditating?” she asked.

In response, I shook my head “no.” I mean, really. How could my coffee-chugging, gum-snapping, neurotic-driven self quite possibly clear my thoughts for 30 seconds, let alone the length of a meditation session?

Instructor and Program Manager Jennifer Stevenson of the Art of Living Foundation explains that there are two types of stress: physical, when your body is overworked, and mental, which stems from the array of negative emotions experienced on a daily basis.

“We get angry about the past and anxious about the future,” she said. “Meditation gives you a tool to bring your mind to the present moment and break…

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the cycle of negative emotions.”Further, she details, meditation is stress-reducing because it focuses on the concept of “living in the moment.”

“Many times, we come across a problematic situation, and we easily get caught up in anger, regret or blame. These are negative emotions linked with the past. Or we get caught up in fear, anxiety and worry. These are emotions linked with the future,” said Stevenson. “And when the mind is caught up in the future or past, it doesn’t help us handle the challenges of the present.”

Michael Fischman, co-founder and U.S. President of the Foundation, encourages that those interested in meditation seek out the expertise of a teacher.

“Just trying to figure it out on your own makes it complicated,” he said. “There’s a law to mind and that is — what you resist will persist. The more you resist thoughts, the more they will persist. Meditation is a practical way to recharge and clear the mind.”

During the process, Stevenson advises first-timers like me to concentrate on regulated breathing patterns, which is linked to one’s mindset and emotions. You know how your spouse tells you to “take deep breaths” when upset? The technique works for a reason — you’re able to bring your mind to the present, placing yourself in mental control of a situation and thereby helping to wrangle those bursts of negativity.

If you find that you need to recite a particular mantra, Stevenson suggests the following: “I want nothing. I do nothing. I am nothing.”

With this advice in mind, I took a shot in meditating for my first time last night. I lied down on my bed, even stuck ear plugs in to muffle any outside noises, and focused on the sound of the rise and falls of my breathing.

How did it go?

Admittedly, I’m going to need a lot of practice. I say this, primarily, because I… fell asleep.

Despite my failed attempt, one should ideally meditate every day. Consider picking a set time, like in the morning before work to set the tone of relaxation for the day.

(Perhaps tomorrow I’ll try again, but in the morning when I wake up.)

“What I have found as the biggest deterrent to people not being able to meditate is that they don’t have enough time. However, when they start to meditate, they find they have more time, because they are able to focus and get more done,” said Fischman.

Additionally, meditation can occur anywhere — in the office, during the bus ride home or even during a hot shower after a long workday.

“You don’t need to be tucked away in the Himalayas on a yoga mat to meditate. You can meditate in almost all places. I’ve meditated on planes, park benches and in office conference rooms, to name a few. The best place is a quiet space where you can sit comfortably without any distractions,” said Stevenson.

Ultimately, being at peace with oneself translates to other areas of life, promoting generally happier relationships. For that reason, I plan to keep practicing the art, no matter the frenetic activity of the day.

“We are not taught effective tools, neither at home nor at school, on how to deal with stress. Meditation is a tool that we have innate within us to reduce stress. It brings a sense of peace within,” stated Stevenson. “And when you feel peaceful, you naturally want to share that.”

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Meditation can help you sleep

koala sleeping on a branch

One of the questions I am asked most often is “Can meditation help me sleep?”

Many people think meditating in the morning is best- and it is a great way to start your day, however meditating before bed is also a great way to end your day and can help you make the transition from your day of activity to a night of sleeping peacefully.

Have you ever had the experience of being very tired, going to bed and then tossing and turning because thoughts keep coming to mind and you cannot sleep? It is very frustrating to be tired but unable to fall asleep, especially when you have another busy day to look forward to tomorrow.

Meditating before bedtime can help you rest so that you can fall asleep.

Meditation will turn down the volume of thoughts in your mind. Sitting on your meditation cushion, or in a chair, or even lying down in bed, and focusing on your breathing will help to clear your mind of the myriad of thoughts, worries and planning that often stops us from relaxing and falling asleep.

Give it a try right now – focus on your breathing – you can count your breaths from one to ten and then start over again – or focus on the quality of your breath. Is your breathing calm and regular? is it short and shallow?

You can also just focus your attention on the breath and as you do, your breathing will help your body to relax and before you know it you will be sleeping.

Our busy days often affect our inability to rest and go to sleep peacefully. When that happens, try meditating before bed time to help you fall asleep and get a good night’s rest.

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Finding comfort in my own skin

After tossing and turning through some sleepless nights, Sunada discovered a few things about the discomfort at the root of her insomnia. Realizing that it’s always there on some level, it’s given her something real to work with, day and night.

I turn to look at my bedside clock. 3:18 am. Here I am again, wide awake, staring at the ceiling. Darn it.

This has been happening a lot lately. So I thought, how about trying something different? Why not use that time to meditate? You know, lie in bed, completely present with my body and mind, and being with how it all just IS? You’d think this would be ideal conditions. No distractions. The phone won’t ring. The computer’s turned off. It’s warm and comfy. There’s nothing I have to do. Just rest quietly.

Funny thing though. My mind doesn’t think so. Watching it, it’s so clear. The real problem isn’t that I’m awake in the middle of the night. It’s that I don’t want to be here, and I keep fighting it. I seem to think that somehow — maybe that NEXT shift of position, whatever it is, will be the perfect one that lulls me off to sleep. And of course it isn’t. I’m doing everything it can to avoid facing the fact that I’m awake. The bottom line, really, is that in this quiet comfy place, I’m uncomfortable being in my own skin.

As I lay there, I remembered a story about the Buddha. A king asked the Buddha which one of the two of them was happier. The king had magnificent palaces, a powerful army, beautiful women … everything he could possibly want. Surely he was the happier of the two. Then the Buddha asked him, “Could you sit perfectly still for an hour and be completely happy?” The king thought he could. Then the Buddha asked, “Could you sit for a whole day and be happy? Or seven days? The king had to admit he’d find that difficult. The Buddha then said, ‘Now, I — without moving my body, without uttering a word — can dwell sensitive to unalloyed pleasure for seven days and nights. So what do you think: That being the case, who dwells in greater pleasure: the King or me?’”

The kind of happiness the Buddha was speaking of doesn’t depend on having perfect conditions or feeling pleasure. And here I was, with great conditions and physical comfort, and STILL I was yammering to myself. Pretty pitiful, I thought.

I’m realizing now that this state of being “uncomfortable in my own skin” is something that’s there pretty much all the time. It’s what leads me to distract myself – run around being “busy”, surf the internet mindlessly, putter and waste time. When meditating, it’s that monkey mind that’s so fascinated by the next shiny thing over there. I resist going more deeply into being present, I think, because I don’t want to feel this underlying discomfort. I suppose I could call it anxiety, restlessness, craving for sense experience. Maybe it’s the existential fear that I’m told we all have – fear that if I stop doing things, I’ll somehow disappear. It’s a fear of death. In any case, there’s a real discomfort I feel — a very subtle but real bodily sensation. Especially on those quiet sleepless nights.

The Buddha’s remedy for any craving or aversion is, of course, mindfulness. So I’ve been shining the light of my awareness on this as much as I can.

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When lying awake at night, I turn inward, and bring my awareness to that discomfort itself. I give it my loving attention. Like holding a child having a tantrum. It takes some effort, yes. I try to release my grip on it.

First, relax my body. I do a body scan and consciously let go of all the places I’m holding – a leg, a hip, a shoulder. I imagine sinking deeper into the mattress, giving my body weight over to it completely. I notice how entire areas of my body, like my hips and back, had been holding on tight. It feels good to let them go. I also do the same with my mind. Relaxing places where I feel it gripping tightly to a thought, an idea. Open up, soften, let go, surrender.

And as I do this, there are times when I slowly pass through that wall of discomfort and settle into something different. Where I sort of become my awareness itself. It’s like I’m at a deeper core of myself where I float, separate from my unhappiness and watch it from a distance. When I’m there I feel more anchored by my sensibilities, self-respect, and natural intelligence. I can watch those restless feelings pass through my experience as fleeting bursts of energy. And not take their bait so much. For brief moments, I feel more spacious, expansive, and at ease. Bigger than those tantrums that I was caught up in just a few moments earlier.

Being there doesn’t necessarily get to me sleep right away – I’ve had nights where I’d lie awake like this for two hours or more. But I’m at least keeping myself from indulging so much in the fretting and fighting with myself. And yes, eventually, I do fall asleep. And often the next day, I find I don’t feel so sleep-deprived because I actually rested, even though I didn’t sleep through the night.

I’m grateful for my insomnia for showing me this “uncomfortable in my skin” feeling. It’s given me something real to work with. I see it clearly. It’s sharpened my awareness of how it’s there all the time, throughout the day. It’s given me opportunities to practice staying mindful of it, while waiting in line at the grocery store, eating, driving, just about any time. And not letting it rule me. Working with it, I keep aspiring toward the kind of presence that could sit perfectly content through it all, maybe even for seven days and nights, just like the Buddha.

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Buddhist Vihara offers metta meditation as solution for nightmares

wildmind meditation news

Pujitha Kuruwita, Independent Mail, Anderson, South Carolina: Anula would shiver, scream and wake-up in cold sweats from her nightmares every day. She would dream of someone killing her, someone cutting her limbs, she would be lost in a dark desert with horrible beasts, someone would chase her with a gun, she would be bitten by a snake and she’s so scared of snakes. She suffered from these gruesome and horrifying nightmares for many years, till at the Buddhist Vihara the Bhikkhu told her to practice “metta meditation” for few minutes before bed.

“Metta meditation” or “meditation of loving kindness” would become very easy to do with practice. One can practice metta mediation while sitting, standing or while being engaged in daily activities. Metta, a “pali” word, is translated to English as loving-kindness, friendliness, benevolence, friendship, amity or sympathy. It means wishing goodwill for your self and others, withholding all self-interests. As a result, your mind would be free of ill-will, hatred, jealousy and be filled with kindness, love and non-violence.

The Bhikkhu explains it best:

To begin … relax, quiet your mind and your self. You can begin by practicing metta to your self. Say out-loud or think to yourself, “May I be safe. May I be well. May I be peaceful. May I be happy. May I be strong.

When we practice true love to ourselves, we begin to think, just like we want to be happy, others want to be happy too. This is the foundation to practicing metta to others.

After practicing metta to yourself, practice metta to your loved ones. Your husband, your children, your friends, your family members. Practice saying “May they (whoever you think of) be safe. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be happy. May they be strong.

Then think of those you have neutral feelings toward. Practice loving kindness meditation toward them.

Afterward, think of those of whom you have a distaste for, those whom you find it difficult to forgive, those whom you had a conflict with, those whom you are angry with or fearful of. Think, May they be safe. May they be well. May they be peaceful. May they be happy. May they be strong.

And finally, think may all living beings be safe. May all living beings be well. May all living beings be peaceful. May all living beings be happy. May all living beings be strong.

You will begin to feel a sense of relief. Your heart will be light. You will feel happy and peaceful

If you practice metta meditation everyday, you will sleep well, wake-up easily, you will have pleasant dreams, your face will be beautiful, people will love you, also you will be free of hatred, jealousy, ill-will, and danger.

After these words, Anula practiced metta meditation before bedtime daily and it has been sweet dreams for her ever since!

May you be safe ! May you be well ! May you be peaceful ! May you be happy ! May you be strong!

Punya Pujitha Kuruwita visits the Buddhist Vihara in Greenville. She lives with her husband and 3-year-old daughter in Central.

Original article no longer available

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Stress is contagious

Sanchita Sharma, Hindustan Times: More than news headlines, what gives me stress is reading about stress. It makes me hostile, sleepless, restless, overeat and break into spots, all worries — except the spots — that add to existing stress and push me closer to disease and death. Stress does not cause any single disease, not even ulcers, as previously believed. Australian researchers Barry J Marshall and Robin Warren won the 2005 Nobel Prize in medicine for showing that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) caused ulcers, not stress.

Stress makes several diseases much worse, largely because it suppresses the immune system, increasing risk of infections. From headaches and colds to the more debilitating diabetes, heart attacks, depression and impotence, stress has been linked to almost everything that can mess up our lives.

Studies in the west are now showing that as much as genes and smoking, it’s stress that determines the quality of your life and how long you live. And more than long working hours, night-shifts or threats of downsizing, it’s personal conflicts at the workplace that add to stress.

What’s more, stress is contagious and can affect those around you. Parents carry on-job stress home and pass on their worries to their children, causing them to burn out at school.

Burnout symptoms in children included tiredness, a sense of inadequacy as a student and cynicism about the value of schooling.

Walking away from stress, or at least brooding about worries, is not easy, but the payoffs are worth it. One way to fight stress is by using the relaxation response technique, developed in the 1970s at Harvard Medical School by cardiologist Dr Herbert Benson. To counter the stress response, he proposes achieving a state of profound rest through progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and yoga.

Meditation shows heartbeat and respiration, forcing the body’s oxygen consumption to drop along with levels of blood lactate — lactic acid that appears in the blood when oxygen delivery to the tissues is not enough to support normal metabolism — linked to panic attacks.

A recent study at the University of Chicago showed that a 10-minute meditation session improved the averages of people taking high-stake math exam. It pushed up their scores by five points, because, explained study author Sian Beilock, it helped them focus on the math by freeing their brains from stressful thoughts.

Sleep helps, but alcohol doesn’t. One sleepless night — whether spent online, reading or working shifts — can spike stress hormones and make it harder for you to sleep when you actually want to. Alcohol makes your mind feel relaxed but plays havoc with your biological response: blood alcohol levels over 0.1 per cent (one large whisky or vodka) makes your stress hormones work overtime, making you feel tired and listless.

Hanging out with friends and family — over a cup of herbal tea, not alcohol works best. Several studies in the US and Europe have shown that people with fewer family and close friends have shorter life expectancies, with loners experiencing the stress of loneliness equivalent to a lifetime of smoking.

And, corny as this may sound, it helps to confront your fears. The Tamil Nadu government used crayons and yoga to help young tsunami-survivors overcome the terror of the killer wave that wiped their families and homes in 2004. All the images the children drew initially were dark — gloomy skies, flooded villages, uprooted trees, dead people and animals — but at the end of three weeks, the sun started shining. And the children were back to playing cricket on the beach.

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Meditation boosts reaction time and reduces the need for sleep

New research shows that meditating improves performance on tests of reaction time, and decreases the need for sleep.

Prashant Kaul, Jason Passafiume, and two other colleagues from the Department of Biology at the University of Kentucky assessed whether meditation leads to an improvement on a psychomotor vigilance task, and whether longer bouts of meditation may alter reduce the need for sleep.

Novice meditators, who were university students, completed 40 minutes of meditation, nap, or control activities on six different days, plus one night of total sleep deprivation on a different night, followed by 40 minutes of meditation. A second study examined sleep times in long-term experienced meditators versus non-meditators. The groups continued their normal activities while monitoring their sleep and meditation times.

The research is published in the journal, Behavioral and Brain Functions.

Novice meditators were tested on the vigilance task before each activity, 10 minutes afterward, and one hour later. All ten novice meditators improved their reaction times immediately following periods of meditation, while all but one got worse immediately following naps.

Sleep deprivation, as you’d expect, slowed reaction times. But reaction times improved significantly following a period of meditation.

Sleep duration in long-term experienced meditators was lower than in the control group of non-meditators, and compared to the general population, with no apparent decrease in reaction times.

These results suggest that meditation provides at least a short-term performance improvement even in novice meditators. In long term meditators, multiple hours spent in meditation are associated with a significant decrease in total sleep time when compared with age and sex matched controls who did not meditate.

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Mummy, can we meditate now? How relaxation exercises can help your child to sleep

Like most parents of small children, I was having major problems at bedtime. Things had gone from bad to worse: each night, my four-year-old refused to go to bed, and once she got there, was repeatedly getting up. The whole process could last as long as two hours, leaving us both frustrated and exhausted.

I tried everything: reading longer bedtime stories in an attempt to calm her down; a frog that played classical music. I tried extra trips to the park, trying to tire her out even more in the hope that she would collapse into bed at night. Nothing seemed to work. Until last Christmas, when I slipped a CD of guided meditations (Enchanted Meditations for Kids) into her stocking, along with a bit of wishful thinking.

The CD promised to “help kids sleep more soundly and feel more confident and secure in their home and school life”. I was dubious that a mere CD could help, but was willing to try anything. What does meditation consist of for a small child? The CD consisted of pairs of tracks: the first was a short relaxation, where listeners are told to tighten muscles in different parts of their body and then let go, followed by guided imagery where Elise could imagine herself swimming in the sea with dolphins, or living in her own fairy castle.

At first, I tried playing the CD during the day, but she was too busy playing to take notice of it. So I made it part of the bedtime routine: after the stories I would turn the light off, put the CD on, and leave the room. Elise seemed to enjoy it – when she got up the next morning, she announced she had been making new friends with the mermaids in the night. And five months later, our evenings are much calmer.

It started with the disappearance of the bedtime wrangling, but there have been other benefits, too. Elise is less frustrated with things when they don’t go her way or when she gets something wrong, which before would have been a source of tension and much shouting and screaming on her part. She will sit for noticeably longer drawing or doing jigsaws, where before she would have got annoyed and given up. I have even taken the CD on holiday and she has settled down to sleep in a strange bed without any problem.

Knowing that the fidget-capacity of small children is high, I was pleased to discover that for very young children meditation proper does not necessarily mean sitting still with their eyes closed, as an adult would. If using a mantra, as in Transcendental Meditation (TM), they can say their ‘word of wisdom’ with their eyes open, even as they walk to school or play with Lego.

At five years of age they ‘do their word’ for five minutes twice a day and thereafter add one minute for each year of their age. “The difference is in the childrens’ intellectual grasp of the whole concept, and the simplicity with which it is taught. The nature of the meditation is the same – the mind wants to be still, it just needs the right conditions ” says Colin Beckley of the Meditation Trust.

Being a small child these days is a pretty stressful business. According to Dr Alison Murfett, a chartered psychologist at the Maple Psychology clinic in London, childhood stress is often related to family life such as sibling rivalry, arguments at home or a disorganised environment, loss or bereavement, or school life (bullying, friendships and performance issues – children as young as six are taking SATs). Is meditation the answer?

Much of the scientific research on meditation has been on TM (which uses repetition of a special word or mantra), and the actress Goldie Hawn even wants to introduce TM into British schools.

Derek Cassells, headteacher at the Maharishi School in Lancashire (the only school in the UK to teach “consciousness-based education”) says the children there are happier, have more self-confidence, have better relationships with their peers and their teachers, and are more alert. In schools where meditation is on the curriculum, it is claimed there are no problems like bullying or drugs.

Research found that after one year of practising TM, children showed significant improvements in maths and reading. A study from the University of Michigan found that in year-six students, regular meditation had a significant positive effect on self-esteem and emotional competence. Beckley says meditation can help young children to experience life on a “quieter screen”. “These days, there is so much sensory stimulation, we need a silent foundation, otherwise our house will topple down. Over-stimulation leads to the body storing stress, and being in a state of constant mild anxiety and restlessness. A quieter backdrop to our experience leads to increased learning.” Never mind the lost art of conversation, Beckley argues that “families have lost the ability to be quiet with each other”.

At the Maharishi School, Cassells teaches the principles of the “science of creative intelligence” alongside the practical aspects of meditation. These principles, “such as ‘the nature of life is to grow’ and ‘order is present everywhere’, allow children to see beneath the surface of life, so that they apply the principles outside them and within their own lives”. Other schools are taking up the idea of introducing meditation to children.

So as Elise drops off listening to her guided visualisations, I enjoy the silence and remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him to sleep.”

Simple steps to calmer children

Make sure that you and your children enjoy some quiet time together each day, away from the noise and distraction of TV, computers, games consoles and mobile phones.

Limit the amount of time your children spend watching television (and Colin Beckley of the Meditation Trust would argue that those under the age of three should not watch any at all).

Watch the breath: lie down and put a small teddy on the child’s tummy so that they can be aware of the movement of the abdomen as they breathe in and out.

Sign up, along with your child, for meditation classes given by a trained instructor.

Try foot massage: according to the Ayurveda system of traditional Indian medicine, massaging the feet of babies and small children can relax them, help them to become more aware of their bodies, and promote bonding.

[Michelle Teasdale, The Independent]
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