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The Mindful Way Through Insomnia

Shannon Harvey

It’s taken me an inordinate amount of time to string these words together. I’m unfocussed, inarticulate and foggy. In fact, in the course of writing this sentence I’ve also refreshed my inbox (twice), checked multiple news websites (again) and made (another) cup of tea. I’m in an unusually bad mood and looking for a distraction from the difficulty of having to think. This all boils down to one primary cause – sleep. (Or lack there of.)

As regular readers will know, from time to time I suffer from insomnia, usually induced by one of three things:

A. Caffeine
B. Rumination
C. Small children

Last night, it was a combination of B and C.

My five-year-old son had a rough night, waking at regular intervals and needing soothing. With each progressive wake-up I found it increasingly difficult to get back to sleep. By 2am I was sure that the following day would be unproductive and ruined. By 3am I was certain that falling asleep was impossible. And by 4am I was convinced that all the work I’ve done on my new film was total bollocks and no one would be interested in any of it.

It is occasions like last night’s ruminative sleeplessness that have led me to embark on my new project – My Year Of Living Mindfully, in which a team of scientists are tracking my stress levels, brain function, immune system and gene expression as I meditate daily for a year. As I wrote recently, it all came about when I realised my stress was at a worrying level. My anxiety-induced nail-biting habit and insomnia had returned, and I feared the reappearance of the chronic pain, fatigue and arthritis that comes with having an autoimmune disease. Basically, I came up with the project because I needed to get back on track, and in order to do so, I needed to make it my job.

I’m not alone in suffering from chronic insomnia. It’s estimated that 35 percent of people have trouble getting to sleep or staying asleep at some stage in their lives. This is no small thing at a time when lost sleep is increasingly becoming paired with chronic diseases such as anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia, diabetes, epilepsy, and Parkinson’s disease. Of those affected by insomnia, 30 percent say their sleeplessness makes them tired, irritable and inefficient, and 44 percent believe, like I do, that it’s negatively impacting their health.

So what do we do?

Personally, I’m not that keen on the medication solution. Popping a pill that comes with side effects doesn’t strike me as being a viable long-term solution to a long-term problem. This is why the idea of drug-free mindfulness meditation appeals to me. The evidence looks good too. One pilot study compared medication and meditation and found them to be comparably effective. A recent review found that although more is needed, the research so far suggests that mindfulness based interventions (MBIs) have significant impacts on insomnia and sleep disturbance.

The scientists don’t yet know exactly why sleeplessness seems to be improved with mindfulness. One theory, which I call the “Unwind Effect,” is that because mindfulness training calms our busy brains, it also reduces our physiological arousal. In other words, when our minds relax, so do our bodies. Our muscles loosen up, our heart rate slows, and our breathing steadies, which makes it easier to get to sleep. The Unwind Effect theory lines up nicely with Herbert Benson’s relaxation response findings from the 1960s which I’ve written about before.

Another theory, which some researchers call “Re-perceiving,” is that mindfulness training gives us an ability to become aware of our own mental state and this allows us to then change our relationship to it. Instead of getting caught up in our thoughts, we take a mental step back and become less emotionally invested. It’s interesting that having a tendency to ruminate has been identified as an important contributing factor to having insomnia, and I’m certain that mindfulness training helps my insomnia by disrupting the negative thinking patterns that I have a tendency to automatically fall into late at night.

I suspect that mindfulness training, which involves intentionally bringing awareness to present moment thoughts or sensations with an attitude of acceptance, patience, openness, curiosity, and kindness, works on a number of levels. But I don’t want to oversell mindfulness as being a proven "cure" for insomnia. The review I mentioned earlier highlighted that although there were 18 studies, they were all small (including a grand total of 407 people) and only six were randomised controlled trials (considered the gold-standard of research). It’s very early days.

Over the years I’ve learned that there’s an art and science to getting a good night’s sleep and that it’s far too simplistic to say that meditating for a few minutes a day is going to solve such a complex problem. I’ve written before about my rather elaborate bedtime ritual, which among other things includes blue-light blocking glasses if I watch television and orange tinted globes in my night lamps.

With that said, there’s one thing I know for sure. Before I began meditating 210 days ago, I was doing all my “sleep hygiene” activities before bed and still experiencing two or three nights a week of sleeplessness. I’m now meditating daily for 45 minutes and with the exception of last night which was in part caused by my son’s wakefulness, my insomnia has disappeared.

All this was (far less logically) churning around in my head at four this morning as I ruminated on my “catastrophic” life decisions. It was then that l realised the solution to my sleeplessness was ridiculously obvious. I loaded up a 10 minute guided track on my meditation app… and was asleep before it even finished.


**Photo by Hernan Sanchez on Unsplash

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