Do recurring thoughts stop you from sleeping?
If you have problems getting to sleep, you’re not alone. We either can’t get to sleep because our minds are overthinking, or we get up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. Or both.
We spend ages trying to clear our minds telling ourselves how important it is that we are fully rested because we have so many jobs we need to get done tomorrow. Then, in the morning, we overestimate just how bad our sleep has been and put more pressure on ourselves the following night. It's a vicious circle!
The more we try to go to sleep, the more awake we become!
There has been a great deal of research on how we can get a better night’s sleep. Here is a helpful post to support you and you can download Feel Well's free Ebook on the website too.
But what if your mind still won’t switch off? You’ve tried everything but you’re still constantly worrying about deadlines, planning your week, regretting a conversation or fantasising about the next holiday. You find yourself still awake at 2 am churning over the same thing over and over again until suddenly it’s 3am and yet another hour has passed.
Mindfulness trains the mind to become aware of and let go of unwanted thoughts.
When people think of mindfulness, many believe it’s simply about relaxation or calmness. In fact, mindfulness is about training our attention and building awareness of the body and mind. Relaxation is often a by-product of bringing this awareness into the present moment. Moving our attention away from conceptual thinking and to our senses activates our “rest and digest” parasympathetic nervous system, sending signals to our brain that all is ok.
Mindfulness can be seen as a form of mental training. We can train the mind to become aware of our habitual thought patterns more quickly and we develop the neural pathways in our brain to become more flexible in where we place our attention. This means, when we get caught up in night-time rumination, we can nip it in the bud by choosing to let go of unwanted and unhelpful thoughts.
For example, you may find yourself worrying about a presentation you need to give at work the next day and you need a good night’s sleep so that you are able to perform well. When we train our minds in mindfulness, we are able to interrupt this pattern of thinking and direct our attention elsewhere. Often, the most helpful place to move our attention is to the body, perhaps focusing on how heavy the body feels, the softness of the duvet against the skin or the tiredness of the eyes.
In order to build mindfulness skills, it takes practice but ideally not when you are lying awake at night trying to get to sleep, but during the day when you are more awake and alert and it need not take long.
How to get started with mindfulness?
The last thing we want is another thing to do on our To-Do list which is already over-flowing. My suggestion would be to start small and build up a regular practice, something that you are able to fit into your day without too much effort. You may want to take the first 5 minutes in the morning, just as you wake up to do a mindfulness meditation or you may want to tag it onto another activity e.g. when you’re waiting to pick the kids up from school or in the car before you go into work etc. Here is a 5-minute practice you may wish to try
As with physical exercise, you need to practice regularly for the neural pathways in your brain to build awareness and flexibility of your attention. Once you have a regular short practice, you may wish to increase this to longer meditations. Research shows that the more you do, the greater and wider the benefits. In other words, the more you train the mind, the more you will be able to let go of night-time unhelpful thinking.
Mindfulness can not only lower stress and improve sleep but can also build resilience, concentration, focus, memory and boost the immune system so it’s definitely worth building a regular and consistent habit.
If you would like some help to get you started, you can download my free 5-day Mindfulness Habit Builder, it’s just 5 minutes a day for 5 days to get you started.
Sally Singleton is a Mindfulness Trainer who works with busy, working women who have a tendency to get caught up in overthinking and have difficulty in switching off.
Sally teaches evidence-based mindfulness skills, a form of mental fitness which trains the mind to settle and respond skilfully in times of stress or overwhelm. Participants on her courses learn to become calmer, happier and more resilient in order to thrive at work and home.
Sally is a qualified mindfulness teacher who has trained with the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, Bangor University and the UK Mindfulness Network and is undertaking an MA in Mindfulness-Based Approaches. Prior to this, she spent 14 years in Corporate Learning and Development in the UK and the Middle East.