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The Science Behind Meditation for Sleep

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Oftentimes, anxiety makes its way into our daily lives. It could be the result of work stress, difficult relationships, a sudden move, or a tragedy. And although this anxiety manifests in different ways, one common result is difficulty falling — or staying — asleep.

Of course, there are medications and supplements available to help you sleep, as well as various sleep hygiene practices, but meditation is a natural remedy that may be worth trying if you’re struggling to sleep.

Note: The content on Sleepopolis is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of medical advice and supervision from your healthcare provider. If you feel you may be suffering from any sleep disorder or medical condition, please see a trained professional immediately.

Can Meditation Help You Sleep?

Meditation has a long history across different cultures and religions as a technique to train awareness and attention. Many people practice meditation to achieve mental clarity and emotional stability… but can it also help you sleep?

According to scientists, the answer is a resounding yes. Studies have shown increased levels of serotonin (a neurotransmitter associated with “rest and fulfillment”) and melatonin (a hormone associated with sleep) after meditation, as well as decreased levels of norepinephrine (a neurotransmitter associated with anxiety) after meditation. If you’ve ever felt like you can’t sleep because your mind is racing a mile a minute, meditation may prove the solution you need.

Research also shows that meditation can help improve your sleep quality. A study on older adults with sleep disturbances found that mindfulness meditation not only helped the participants to sleep better at night, but also minimized day-time impairment that insomnia creates. That combination could allow for major improvement in quality of life.

Another study found that meditation practice (and exercise) also improved sleep quality in adults without known sleep issues. It also suggested that mindfulness meditation could improve functioning when fatigued from poor quality sleep. 

So, even if you have no issue falling asleep, meditation could improve the quality of your sleep, as well as help you function better after getting lackluster sleep.

What Time of Day Should You Meditate for Better Sleep?

If you’re new to meditation, you might be wondering what time of day you should be meditating. Should you meditate in bed as you’re trying to fall asleep? Or can a daily ritual of meditation any time of day help you sleep better? To get a sense of what time sleep-seekers should be meditating, we spoke to Kathy Carlson, a meditation lecturer at Franklin College.

“The most important thing is to have a daily practice,” Carlson told Sleepopolis. “If a person can only practice at bedtime, that’s valuable,” she said. 

In her view, as an experienced meditation practitioner, there are far more benefits to be gained from a daily practice that isn’t intended to help you fall asleep right away. She said that practicing meditation can help you to train your brain to become more mindful — to pay attention to the thoughts in your mind without necessarily engaging with them. 

Over time, that practice can actually help with sleep as it builds the skillset to deal with racing thoughts. After practicing meditation over time, when you lay down at night and all the anxious thoughts start rolling in, you’ll know how to acknowledge them without spiraling.

“If a person suffers from anxiety, reducing the anxiety is going to help them sleep better,” Carlson said.

However, Carlson isn’t a purist. If listening to a meditation app at night helps you fall asleep, she says that’s okay. And if the only time you have to meditate is right before bed, or even as you are lying in bed and getting ready to fall asleep, that’s still beneficial. 

“There is more benefit to the brain if they stay awake,” Carlson said. “If the purpose is to change the brain… then it’s more benefit to stay awake. However, if you’re using [mediation] to fall asleep at night, then bingo, you know, you’ve accomplished something.”

How to Meditate Before Bed

There’s more than one way to meditate, and you may want to try different styles of meditation to find the right one for you. Here are a few examples, along with tips for getting started. Any of these meditation techniques can be practiced during the day, before bed, or even as you’re lying in bed, ready to fall asleep.

Mindfulness meditation

Mindfulness meditation is all about being present in the moment. As you practice, you should be able to block out external distractions and worries, and instead create a space where you can simply breathe and be.

  • Find a comfortable, safe place where you can sit and relax.
  • Set a time limit for yourself; if you’re just getting started, 10 minutes is fine.
  • Find a seated position where you can remain steady and still, whether that’s sitting cross-legged, kneeling, or something else.
  • Feel your breath. Be attentive to each inhale and exhale.
  • Notice as your mind wanders; and when you do, direct it back to your breathing.
  • Be kind to yourself. Don’t judge yourself for a wandering mind; instead, just come back to the breathing.

Progressive muscle relaxation (PMR)

When you feel stressed, it causes tension throughout your body. PMR is a relaxation technique that allows you to relieve that tension; it works when you engage and then release one muscle group at a time. Some tips for getting started:

  • Work your way down through your entire body.
  • Start with your forehead, then jaw, then shoulders, etc.
  • Breathe in, and then gently but deliberately tense one muscle group as hard as possible. This may cause shaking or discomfort, but shouldn’t cause pain.
  • As you exhale, quickly and fully relax the tensed muscle group.
  • Rest for about 30 seconds.
  • Follow this pattern for each muscle group, working your way down the body and maintaining mindfulness of your breathing.

Body scan meditation

Body scan meditation is another way of releasing tension. It’s all about conducting a mental “scan” of your body, one body part at a time. Simply stop to observe bodily sensations in sequence, moving from your head down to your feet.

  • Start out in a comfortable position, preferably lying down.
  • Develop some slow, steady breathing.
  • Bring awareness to the first body part; acknowledge any pain or other physical sensations. Continue to breathe.
  • Visualize the tension leaving your body throughout the scan.
  • Continue the scan, steadily and methodically, down your whole body.

Guided meditation

Guided meditation allows you to achieve relaxation and stress release through the direction of a guide. This may be a real-life person, who guides meditation in a group setting, or it may be a recording you play from your phone or computer.

  • If you use an app or recording, we’d invite you to shut off all other notifications, or to put your phone on airplane mode (if possible).
  • Find a space where you can sit, kneel, or lie down comfortably. The goal here is to be relaxed, but not to fall asleep.
  • Close your eyes, breathe normally, and allow your guide to handle it from there.

Affirmation meditation

Through affirmation meditation, you can quiet your mind and relieve stress by bathing yourself in positivity. This practice is all about focusing your attention on a motivating or empowering phrase or mantra.

  • Start by thinking about what you’d like to change, or what you’d like more of in your life. If you struggle with self-doubt, you might want to choose a mantra along the lines of “I am good enough,” or “I am worthy,” or “I can do beautiful things.”
  • Make sure your affirmation is filled with positive words for your brain to wrap itself around. For instance, “I am strong” is much more effective than “I am not weak.”
  • Also ensure you’re focusing on the present. “I am strong” works better than “I will be strong.”
  • As you repeat your mantra to yourself, close your eyes and practice natural breathing. Try to visualize a positive scene that’s connected to your affirmation; a scene in which you are happy, empowered, etc.

Loving kindness meditation

Loving kindness meditation seeks to help you foster a sense of connection to the rest of the world by embracing love and kindness for yourself and others. 

  • Start by repeating phrases to yourself like, “May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be safe. May I live with ease,” and so on.
  • Then pick a person who you love and repeat those same phrases to them, such as “May my mom be happy. May my mom be healthy,” etc.
  • Repeat the same phrases again but towards a person you know who is struggling or going through a difficult time.
  • Next, pick a person who you don’t really know, but have interacted with, such as a cashier at a store you frequent or someone you see frequently on your commute. Repeat the phrases towards them.
  • Then, repeat the phrases towards someone who you dislike or who annoys you.
  • And finally, repeat the phrases for everyone in the entire world.

Benefits and Risks of Meditation

When considering meditation, there are a number of benefits to keep in mind… but also some potential risks. Please be advised.

Some of the primary benefits associated with meditation include:

  • Reduction in stress and anxiety
  • Better tools for dealing with stressful situations
  • Released muscle tension
  • Increased self-awareness and focus on the present
  • Reduced negativity
  • Enhanced ability to relax and to sleep

And, some potential risks include:

  • Sometimes, meditation can dredge up buried emotions that may be painful to deal with.
  • As it changes your sense of self, meditation may be a little disruptive to your personal relationships.

Last Word From Sleepopolis

The bottom line for those who’ve found it increasingly difficult to sleep soundly: Meditation is a holistic way to improve sleep hygiene. Yes, there are some potential risks, and it may take some time and patience before you’re meditating effectively. But if you’re in the grip of stress and fear, meditation might be one way out.

This piece has been updated with writing and reporting by Amelia Jerden.

Josh Hurst

Josh Hurst

Josh Hurst lives and writes in Knoxville, TN. A recovering insomniac, he has a long-standing appreciation for the power of a good night's sleep.