If there was a pill that gave you energy, improves emotional resilience and cognitive performance, would you take it? What if this was freely available and was not a pill, but something you do naturally? So what is this secret thing? Well it’s sleeping properly. Although we’re told that we need the right amount of exercise and nutrition to remain healthy, it turns out that sleep is 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 tracked back to our over-busy lifestyles and addiction to our always-on devices and screens.
Biologically we’re foraging hunter-gatherers who were built for a simple life that included physical and social activity within a small group of trusted and familiar people. We are less active and healthy, interact with a much greater number of strangers and lead much 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 people used to have two separate sleeps 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 and improves 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 five 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 parallel greater activation in the visual cortex.
An average adult needs around eight hours 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 to before midday
- Avoid tackling a stressful or difficult conversation in the hours before bedtime
- Apart from reading a book, avoid smartphones, tablets and other devices 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 can 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 subtle sensations
- 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 which can sometimes disrupt our sleep. Getting a good night’s sleep is critical to how you perform during the day and has an impact on both your physical and mental health. The good news is there are practical things you can do to improve the quality of your sleep, which will benefit your health, happiness, well-beingo and performance. Pleasant dreams.
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.
|Brief settling practice
|Mindful sleep practice
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