Life can feel impossible if you’re running on very little sleep. Not only does it affect your physical energy, but you have very little ability to cope with the demands of your day. This week for Mindfulness Monday, I want to address the importance of sleep. According to the CDC, more than 40.6 million Americans have trouble sleeping. Are you one of them? I’d like to encourage you to try meditation for better sleep!
If you are one of more than one third of the adult population that has trouble sleeping at night, you know how difficult managing your day to day responsibilities can be. Sleep issues range from restlessness to severe insomnia, and occur on a regular basis. For some people, sleep issues look like failing to fall asleep due to the never ending to-do list in their heads. Others fall asleep, but fail to stay asleep and end up spending the night in short bursts of semi-sleep. There’s an unending list of ways sleeplessness presents itself, but ultimately, it leads to frustration and stress.
Why is sleep so important?
Many studies show the evidence of “sleep deprivation”; such as impairment in reasoning and perception. One study out of Canada showed the long-term cognitive effects of sleep deprivation were the same as those of chronic binge drinking. Most of us would say we do not suffer from sleep deprivation; but how much sleep are we really getting? Medical guidelines suggest that Adults (age 18-65) should get 7-9 hours of sleep every night, older adults more. Keep in mind, the guideline is the amount of time you spend sleeping not the amount of time you lay in bed.
Viewed in this light, I think most of us would agree we do not get enough sleep on a regular basis. So, big deal, we just end up a little tired and cranky, right? Wrong. Daytime clarity, workplace productivity, longevity, a strong immune system, even weight loss are proven benefits of an adequately rested mind and body. Yet, even when we don’t have trouble sleeping, it’s the first place we cut corners to “make more time”. It’ time to try meditation for better sleep.
“Sleep is the golden chain that ties health and our bodies together.”
Sleep verses meditation
The Scoop on Sleep
In my previous article on why you need meditation, I outlined the many benefits of starting a meditation practice. Though I didn’t have space to discuss it then, by far, better sleep sits at the top of the list. Let’s get a better understanding of what happens to the body when we sleep. It wasn’t until the 1950’s before scientists understood the relationship between the body and brain during sleep. They previously thought that both the brain and body rested simultaneously during sleep. However, as a matter of built in “survival”, your body design will not allow both your body and mind to have deep rest at the same time. One or the other must remain alert.
The results of this understanding emerged as the sleep phases most people know: light sleep, deep sleep or rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. You can read more about these here, but to summarize, the brain and body alternately move through rest phases which look like “waves” on a graph. While every person is different, we all move through these phases many times a night, unfortunately for most people, we don’t remain in deep sleep long enough.
Among healthy adults this shallow sleep cycle is repeated throughout the night each and every night. Interestingly, sleep studies done on meditators show that their brains tend to advance quickly through the initial stages of light sleep to deep sleep and stay there longer.
When you sleep, your brain is processing information gathered during the day. Amazingly, the brain sorts through all the recent input and aligns it with deep held beliefs and structures present in your subconscious. If you have a backlog of stress, your brain is forced to use its “sleeping time” for stress release rather than rest. Which results in the shallow sleep cycle.
No Rest For the Stressful
Emily Fletcher over at Ziva Meditation explains this really well through the following example. She explains it as an illustrative “math” problem, that helps you understand the relationship between the stress, stress release and rest.
“On an average day, between your responsibilities at work, staying on top of your productivity, upcoming presentations, paying your bills, taking care of your kids, and home, let’s say you acquire ten “units” of stress while you’re awake. You go to bed and sleep, which is enough rest to burn off seven units of that stress. That doesn’t sound too bad, right? Except that you wake up carrying three units of stress from the day before. Then you acquire ten units of stress that day, equaling thirteen units of stress. You go to sleep, burn off seven units, wake up with six units from the day before. Add ten units now you’re up to sixteen units stress…..you get the idea.” Take away? You’ve been doing this your whole life!
The stress builds up over time and sleep for most of us is not an effective enough rest to handle the level of demand on our lives.
Sleep and Meditation are not the same kind of rest
As seen from the above example from Emily Fletcher, due to the huge stress burden we bear, sleep does not provide enough rest for the body. This is due in large part because the brain cannot release stress during the day. Remember, during the sleep cycle either the body is resting or the brain is resting. Unreleased stress causes the brain to “work” when it should be resting, which means both the brain and body are working rather than resting. That’s why you do not wake up feeling refreshed and rested!
On the other hand, when meditating, your body is at complete rest while your brain stays alert. Sleep is rest for your brain; meditation is rest for your body. You need both to thrive and meditation offers you the opportunity to do both more effectively. When you meditate, your body gets to power down and release stress while the brain remains hyper-vigilant.
“Sleep is rest for your brain; meditation is rest for your body”
Meditation is Deeper Than Sleep
In my previous article on why you need meditation, I mentioned a typical meditation practice consists of two daily meditations of fifteen minutes each; only 30 minutes out of your day. In that half hour of twice daily meditation, the body s able to release roughly the same amount of stress as a full night’s sleep.
That may not seem possible, but remember, sleep and meditation are not the same. The state of consciousness achieved in meditation is roughly two to five times deeper than sleep. Additionally, because your body is actually resting, your brain can prioritize de-stressing and repair during the day and rest at night.
Meditation helped me get better sleep
Over the years I have experienced insomnia and periods of time where I felt rested and refreshed. But in recent years, I did notice more problems with sleeplessness or restless sleep, and rarely felt rested when I awoke. Increasingly I found myself so tired I could barely stay awake when driving home from work, and felt completely overwhelmed at the thought of my home responsibilities.
I went to bed earlier, slept in on weekends or days off, but no amount of sleep relieved this problem. Even trying the usual herbal remedies for relaxation didn’t provide much relief. Honestly, I didn’t turn to meditation to help me get better sleep; I turned to meditation for stress relief. Having studied and practiced mindfulness, I felt ready for the next level and through research found meditation could provide what I needed.
While I understand not everyone experiences immediate results with meditation, I did. I not only felt more grounded and in control, but I slept better from day one. Do I still experience sleeplessness or restless nights? Yes, I do. But I find the cause of those sleepless or restless nights comes from my failure to manage my thoughts, poor sleep hygiene or neglecting my twice daily meditation practice.
“Meditation can save your life: the deep, restorative rest rejuvenates body and mind and facilitates healing.”
Tom McKinley Ball
hope for the sleepless
Whether you struggle with occasional sleeplessness or every night seems a battle for you, meditation can help. Meditation provides a sustainable source of energy as long as you practice resulting in higher levels of productivity, creativity and perspective. The best part? Meditation does this in a very different way, through a form of rest so much deeper than sleep, and in a manner that de-excites your nervous system. the question remains, are you willing to become a more engaged, creative, rested and healthy version of yourself?
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