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How Meditation Can Treat Insomnia

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Danielle Pacheco

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Alex Dimitriu

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Meditation encompasses a variety of mind and body techniques used to promote a state of relaxation. With a long history dating back thousands of years, meditation is now starting to gain popularity in the U.S. and is currently practiced by almost one in six American adults.

Researchers are increasingly interested in the potential of meditation as a treatment for insomnia. Given that sleep meditation for insomnia is relatively affordable, low-risk, and easy to implement, it is an attractive option for people who have difficulty accessing other types of therapy or medication.

Can Meditation Treat Insomnia?

Research suggests that various types of meditation can help improve insomnia, and may even improve sleep quality for those without existing sleep problems. Mindfulness meditation, in particular, appears to improve sleep quality and reduce daytime disturbance in people with chronic insomnia and older adults. In the long term, these improvements may be comparable to effects seen from sleep medication or other established methods for insomnia treatment. Like other sleep treatments, a main goal of meditation is to take the pressure off to fall asleep.

How Do Meditation and Mindfulness Affect Sleep?

Mindfulness and meditation help bring about a relaxed state of mind that is conducive to falling asleep. This reaction is often described as the relaxation response, or the opposite of the stress response.

Whereas falling asleep involves a gradual reduction in arousal, insomnia is often defined as a state of hyper-arousal. When we are stressed, depressed, or anxious, our brain stays “wired” and we find it more difficult to fall asleep. Over the long term, we perpetuate this tension as we start to associate bedtime with worries about not being able to fall asleep.

The state of acceptance and awareness invoked by meditation helps reduce psychological distress and improve rumination and emotion regulation. Studies on people with fibromyalgia have found that mindfulness helps patients manage anger, worry, anxiety, and depression. These researchers theorized that mindfulness may improve sleep quality by supplying patients with the mental resources to calm down the nervous system in preparation for sleep.

At a biological level, meditation slows the heart rate and breathing and lowers levels of cortisol, the stress hormone. Over the long term, the relaxation response reduces stress-related inflammation and oxidative stress and improves insulin resistance.

The exact interplay between meditation and sleep is still being investigated, but it appears that meditation provokes lasting changes in the brain that may affect sleep. Studies on people experienced in meditation have found that they display improvements in slow-wave sleep and REM sleep, as well as fewer nighttime awakenings.

How Often Should You Meditate for Insomnia?

Meditation is a skill, and those who practice it more often tend to see more meaningful benefits. Studies on the relaxation response have found that it produces immediate psychological and physical effects, suggesting that daily practice is optimal in order to see effects on that night’s sleep.

    While factors such as the minutes spent meditating and the quality of meditation are difficult to quantify, the benefits of meditation have been found to be enhanced in long-term practitioners.

    Similarly, a study on the benefits of meditation for insomnia in breast cancer patients found that these benefits disappeared after 12 months. These results suggest that the greatest benefits are derived from consistent meditation over a long period of time.

    How Can You Meditate for Better Sleep?

    To lay the groundwork for your meditation session, start by preparing a calm environment and finding a comfortable position. When meditating before bedtime, this may include changing into loose pajamas, turning off the lights, and getting into bed. Practicing healthy sleep hygiene habits and utilizing techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia can help you get the most out of meditation for insomnia.

    If you are using your phone or another device to listen to a guided meditation session, you can reduce distractions by turning off notifications, turning down the brightness on your screen, and setting the volume to an appropriate level.

    Most meditation methods then instruct their disciples to find a center of focus. Meditation soundtracks for insomnia may use a soothing voice, guided imagery, music, or other techniques to induce relaxation.

    What Types of Meditation Work Best For Sleep?

    Meditation techniques for insomnia tend to incorporate breathing and mindfulness components, with a significant amount of overlap between methods. If you’re new to meditation, you can start by talking to a licensed practitioner, downloading an app, or looking up videos online to find a relaxation exercise that works for you. Some common meditation methods for sleep include:

    • Mindfulness Meditation: Most of the research on meditation for insomnia has been done on mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness involves focusing on the present and welcoming thoughts and emotions in an open-minded, non-judgmental manner.
    • Guided Imagery and Music: Guided meditation for insomnia promotes relaxation by asking the meditator to imagine themselves in a calming place, such as a white sandy beach or a forest. This is often accomplished with the help of a video recording or audio clip.
    • Body Scan Meditation: In body scan meditation, participants are instructed to focus on different parts of the body and note any sensations of pain or tension. This is closely tied to progressive muscle relaxation, in which participants actively tense and then relax each successive muscle.
    • Deep Breathing: Deep breathing while engaging the diaphragm is often used in combination with other meditation techniques to enhance relaxation. An example of this is the 4-7-8 breathing method, in which you breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds, then breathe out for eight seconds.

    Meditative movement such as yoga and tai chi also has benefits for sleep quality. Though these activities may be less practical to carry out right before bedtime, practicing these activities on a regular basis may reduce overall feelings of stress and anxiety and assist in reaching a state of relaxation at will.

    Are There Any Drawbacks to Meditation?

    Meditation has few side effects, but they are very rare. However, some people may experience the following:

    • Physical Effects: Certain meditation poses may cause muscle stiffness. Movement-based meditation, in particular, may not be possible for people with physical limitations.
    • Psychological Effects: In rare cases, certain types of meditation may exacerbate anxiety and depressive symptoms.
    • Won’t Cure Sleep Disorders: Meditation is not a cure for sleep disorders such as restless legs syndrome or sleep apnea. These conditions will need to be treated with targeted interventions.
    • May Not Work For You: Meditation takes practice, and you may find it takes some time to see the benefits. Moreover, several studies have found measures of increased arousal during sleep after meditation, indicating that perhaps not all types of meditation are appropriate for improving objective sleep quality.

    What Are Some Other Benefits of Meditation?

    Meditation is perhaps best known for its ability to reduce anxiety, depression, and pain.

    Along the same lines, emerging research is uncovering potential benefits on quality of life for patients with fibromyalgia, diabetes, breast cancer, and irritable bowel syndrome. Preliminary evidence indicates that meditation may also play a role in preventing cognitive decline, quitting smoking, and lowering blood pressure.

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    About Our Editorial Team

    author
    Danielle Pacheco

    Staff Writer

    Danielle writes in-depth articles about sleep solutions and holds a psychology degree from the University of British Columbia.

    author
    Alex Dimitriu

    Psychiatrist

    MD

    Dr. Dimitriu is the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine. He is board-certified in psychiatry as well as sleep medicine.

    About Our Editorial Team

    author
    Danielle Pacheco

    Staff Writer

    Danielle writes in-depth articles about sleep solutions and holds a psychology degree from the University of British Columbia.

    author
    Alex Dimitriu

    Psychiatrist

    MD

    Dr. Dimitriu is the founder of Menlo Park Psychiatry and Sleep Medicine. He is board-certified in psychiatry as well as sleep medicine.

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