Turning off your brain before bed can be more difficult than we think. From the desire to scroll social media to dealing with daily work and family stress, the road to slumber town can have many bumps along the way.
If you’re having trouble drifting off, you’re definitely not alone. “Up to a third of adults, at some point in time, have trouble with sleep and insomnia,” says functional medicine specialist Melissa Young, MD. Meditation is an excellent tactic for calming your mind and priming your body for sleep.
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Dr. Young explains what sleep meditation is, how it works and its many benefits.
What is sleep meditation?
Sleep meditation is a practice that helps prepare your body and mind for sleep. Especially if you have anxiety or insomnia, it can be hard to just jump into bed and fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow. According to Dr. Young, stress, pain and anxiety are the most common factors that can interrupt our sleep and keep us awake at night.
So, think of it as a wind-down button that preps your body and mind for a sleep state through mindful exercises that specifically focus on relaxing your body and mind.
“All of this helps our body and mind move into a more relaxed state, making it easier to transition to sleep,” says Dr. Young.
Some examples of sleep meditations tools include:
Try guided sleep meditation
If meditation is completely new to you, it might feel a bit overwhelming to know where to start. That’s why it’s good to consider guided meditation if you need a blueprint for how to get started. (Don’t worry, we’ll give you one in just a moment.)
As Dr. Young points out, there are plenty of resources on the internet, or even at your local library, that can help guide your first time meditating before bed. Try looking up “guided sleep meditation” on sites like YouTube or wherever you listen to podcasts or audiobooks.
“Over time, you can learn to do this on your own and go through a body scan or different breath techniques,” notes Dr. Young. “That way, you are actually learning to self-soothe and guide yourself into a more relaxed state with meditation.”
Benefits of sleep meditation
Whether you’re dealing with insomnia, physical pain or situational stress that’s causing you sleep issues, sleep meditation can help you find your snooze sweet spot. In the long run, this can promote better sleep, regenerate your body, and restore energy levels the next morning and throughout the day.
Can help move your body out of fight-or-flight mode
Making a conscious effort to calm your mind and be mindful before bed helps you actively shift your body into a parasympathetic (rest) mode. So, instead of letting yourself sit in an anxious fight-or-flight mode, sleep meditation helps counteract this by promoting a sense of calm and relaxation.
May help fight insomnia
“Up to 8 to 10% of the world’s population has insomnia that qualifies as a sleep disorder. It’s very common,” Dr. Young notes. She also says that stress and anxiety are one of the biggest causes of interrupted sleep, so it’s possible that continuous sleep meditation can help with insomnia symptoms in the long run.
A 2019 review found that brief mindfulness meditation intervention may be effective in improving sleep quality and reducing symptoms of insomnia in college students.
But keep in mind, if you’re not seeing any improvement in your sleep quality after sleep meditation or other lifestyle changes, it’s important to see a healthcare provider or sleep specialist. A professional can help you explore whether you might have a medical condition like restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea that’s interfering with getting a good night’s sleep.
Can help ease racing thoughts before bed
Sometimes, our problem is simply that our minds don’t want to shut off. Maybe it’s a particularly busy week at work or you’re worried about family troubles. Every time you almost doze off, another thought pops up: What do I have to do tomorrow? Am I prepared for the week ahead? What did I forget?
“I think we often start replaying the day in our mind and worrying about what we could have done better or what we didn’t do right,” says Dr. Young. “These sleep meditations can be very helpful in releasing some of those thoughts.”
These are the mind movies that keep us up at night, and sleep meditation can be a tool that can turn that film reel off by directing you to focus on your body and breathing.
Can improve brain health
Your quality of sleep definitely can impact your brain health. Your mind needs the necessary rest to recharge every night, and if it doesn’t, that can lead to some issues down the line.
“We actually have a lymphatic system in the brain that clears toxins from the brain as we sleep,” explains Dr. Young. “So, it’s even more important when we think about our brain health and the rise of neurodegenerative disorders.”
How to practice sleep meditation
There’s no hard and fast rule of what kind of meditation before bed will work for you, so you might want to try a couple different formats and be open to exploring new things.
“It’s important to find the modality that works best for you,” says Dr. Young. “Maybe it’s just some breath work with either diaphragmatic breathing. Or maybe it’s visualizing and relaxing your muscles.”
Here’s a guide to one way you can do a sleep meditation:
- Find a comfortable position: Whether you prefer to lie down or sit up, find a comfortable position where you can relax and be at ease. Turn off the lights, close the blinds and shut your eyes if that feels comfortable.
- Focus on your breath: Close your eyes and begin to focus on your breath. Take slow, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Pay attention to the rise and fall of your chest with each breath. “Make sure to not only focus on the inhale but also let out a big sigh with the exhale,” instructs Dr. Young.
- Scan your body: Begin to scan your body, starting at your feet and working your way up to the top of your head. As you focus on each body part, consciously release any tension you may be holding onto. “Just be aware of what you feel,” advises Dr. Young. “Whatever you feel is perfect at this moment. If there is any tension there, try letting it release through your exhale and letting it sink into the bed or down into the earth.”
- Visualize your happy place: Imagine yourself in a peaceful scene — maybe it’s lying on the beach or in an open field. Or maybe, you’re imagining yourself in a happy memory with family or loved ones. Allow your mind to fully immerse in this scene and let go of any distracting thoughts.
- Repeat a calming mantra to yourself: This can be helpful in convincing your brain that you’re entering a wind-down space. It can be as simple as saying: “I’m at peace” or “I am relaxed.”
- Focus on the present moment: As thoughts arise, try to focus on the present moment and the sensations in your body. If your mind starts to wander, gently bring your focus back to your breath and your peaceful scene. “Think about your thoughts like watching a train in the distance,” says Dr. Young. “We don’t need to hop on that train. Just let your thoughts come and then let them go.”
- Release any expectations: Finally, as hard as it sounds — don’t focus too much on whether what you’re doing is working or not. Those doubts are likely to creep in, along with lingering thoughts. But try and release any expectations you may have about how long it will take you to fall asleep or how deeply you will sleep. Simply focus on the present moment and allow yourself to relax fully.
More tips for better sleep
Sleep meditation is a great tool to have under your belt when you’re trying to improve your sleep hygiene. But there are other things you can do as well. Here are some other ways to improve your sleep routine:
Mindful moments throughout the day
How you feel during the day will impact how you feel before bed. So, Dr. Young recommends taking those sleep meditation exercises (even if it’s five minutes of breathwork or meditation) and sneaking them in during little bits of your day as well.
“This actually makes it easier to get in a relaxed, calm state before bed,” she explains. “So ideally, combining some of those great techniques throughout the day is a plus.”
Adjust your screen time
It’s no surprise that looking at our phones before bed can negatively impact our sleep quality. But it even goes beyond lessening your screen time, notes Dr. Young.
The screen light we’re exposed to throughout the day can also impact the quality of sleep we may have later that night. She recommends at least one hour before bed be phone-free and screen-free.
“Some people are more sensitive than others and might need a longer window,” she adds. “It may help to wear those blue-blocking glasses several hours before bed as well.”
Have an early dinner
Our digestive systems can play a role in our sleep quality as well. You don’t want to give your stomach too much work to do right before you’re trying to get your body into a sleeping state.
This means: Those midnight snacks you keep turning to? They may be causing more harm than you realize. Dr. Young urges trying to eat earlier in the evening as best as you can.
“Make sure you finish your dinner about three hours before bedtime so you know food is digested,” she advises.
Create a dark space in your room
It can be hard to focus on lulling yourself to sleep if that pesky street light right outside your window is constantly shining a spotlight on your pillow. If you’re especially sensitive to light, Dr. Young recommends taking some precautions to help envelope yourself in calming darkness before bed.
“We are surrounded by so much external light, even outside of our phone screens.” She recommends getting some blackout shades for our bedroom windows to help block out streetlights or any other outside brightness. “It can make a big difference in helping you fall asleep and stay asleep,” she adds.
Sleep meditation works best if you can combine relaxation techniques during the day and if you find a mode that works best for you. The point of meditation before bed is customizing it to what calms you down. But overall, breathwork, body scans and simply taking five to 10 minutes to focus on relaxing your body throughout the day and night can do wonders for your sweet dreams