If there was a pill that gave you energy, improved your emotional resilience and cognitive performance, would you take it? What if this was freely available and was not a pill, but something you can do naturally? So, what is this amazing, secret thing? Well, it’s getting a proper night’s sleep. Although we’re told that we need the right amount of exercise and nutrition to remain healthy, it turns out that sleep is even more important.
We all need a good night’s sleep, but many people have difficulty getting to sleep, have their sleep disrupted, or do not get enough. Many of these issues can be traced back to our overly busy lifestyles and addiction to our always-on devices and screens. Since the pandemic, researchers have reported an increase in sleep disorders caused by changes in work-life boundaries, greater screen time and general underlying anxiety.
Biologically we’re foraging hunter-gatherers who were built for a simple life that included a good amount of physical activity and socialising within a small group of mainly trusted and familiar people. Today, we are less active and healthy, interact with a much greater number of strangers and lead more complex lives. So, it’s no wonder we sometimes experience problems with such an essential physiological process as sleeping.
There’s historical evidence that before street lighting appeared in the mid-1800s people used to have two separate periods of sleep each night. The first sleep would be for three or four hours, then a period of wakefulness for two to three hours, followed by a second sleep until the morning. In experiments on natural sleep patterns, researchers discovered that this cycle may be more natural than the straight eight hours that we’ve become used to. So, people who wake in the night may actually be reverting to the sleep pattern we evolved with.
There’s a lot of science about the purpose and functions of sleep. Like many other animals, we go through a daily sleep cycle, which refreshes the body and mind. This includes the immune, skeletal, muscular and nervous systems as well as our memory. Humans sleep in roughly ninety-minute cycles with between four or fiveo REM, or “rapid eye movement”, and non-REM phases each night. Scientists believe that the fast eye movements of REM sleep relate to the visual elements of our dreams, which correlates with greater activity in the visual cortex.
An average adult needs around eight hours of sleep, which is about a third of our lives. If we go without sleep, or our sleep is disrupted, we suffer from mental and physical fatigue, which affects our health, mood, wellbeing and performance. If you’ve ever experienced a bad night’s sleep you may have noticed that it takes a few nights to recover what’s called your “sleep debt”, which can accumulate over time. Insomnia, the difficulty in falling or remaining asleep, is the most common form of sleep disorder and affects around ten percent of the population. Over time, insomnia can cause serious health issues including an increased risk of type two diabetes, heart disease and reduced immunity.
So, what are the practical things you can do to improve the quality of your sleep?
- If you can, take some exercise in the morning, or early afternoon
- Wind down and relax in the hours before bedtime
- Limit consumption of caffeine-based drinks and other stimulants after midday
- Avoid tackling a stressful or difficult conversation in the hours before bedtime
- Apart from reading a book, avoid smartphones, tablets and other devices for at least an hour before bedtime
If you find that you cannot get to sleep, or wake up in the middle of the night with an over-active mind, here’s a mindful sleeping process that may help:
- See what’s going on in your mind
- Train your mind to allow you to sleep
- Relax your body and take some deep slow breaths
- Shift your attention and awareness away from your head
- Use curiosity and beginner’s mind to really explore the sensations in your body
- And every time that the mind grabs your attention, gently take your attention back to your body away from your head
- Until you enter a deep sleep…
For more detail on this process play or download the guided practice below.
We all experience times of stress and difficulty in our lives that sometimes disrupt our sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is critical to how we perform during the day and has an impact on both our physical and mental health. The good news is that there are practical things we can do to improve the quality of our sleep, which will benefit our health, happiness, well-being and performance. Pleasant dreams!
Suggested weekly practice
- If you are not sleeping well, keep a journal of your sleep patterns during the week. This could be by noting the start, end times and the quality of sleep in a notebook, an app, or using a health and fitness tracker device if you have one.
- If you cannot get to sleep, or wake and have difficulty getting back to sleep, try running through the process described above, or play the guided audio Mindful Sleep practice.
- Settle thoughts by bringing your attention to your breath and body and train your mind to stop serving your thoughts when you need to sleep. Also, relax your eyes, as there is a high correlation between eye movement and thought.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware. There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the first settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then play the second practice which can be used to either wind down in preparation for a good night’s sleep or as a mindful sleep practice if your sleep is disrupted by an over-active mind.