The inability to fall sleep, remain sleep, or sleep well affects approximately 60 million people annually. While insomnia affects all ages, over half of individuals 55 years old and older, experience some level of sleep disturbance. Given the projected growth in the aging population, this poses a major health concern. According to the Population Reference Bureau, one-fifth of the US population will be 65 years old or older by 2050. Women who are pregnant or experiencing menopause that causes hot flashes and night sweats commonly experience insomnia.
Insomnia causes major problems personally and socially. It affects health and relationships. Insomniacs experience increased levels of fatigue, mood disorders, higher instances of depressive symptoms and poorer quality of life.
Insomnia decrees work productivity, can be the precursor to on the job and automobile accidents and increases risk for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. It also negatively affects a sleep-deprived person's ability to think and make reasonable decisions.
If you have ever experienced a bad night's sleep or insomnia, you know that you are likely to be irritable, lack energy to accomplish daily tasks and feel added stress from the fatigue.
Stress, Anxiety and Insomnia
Stress is a significant contributing factor to the development of insomnia. People suffering from stress and anxiety related to work, relationships, health, finances or other pressing issues find themselves unable to stop mulling over their concerns enough to find a restful sleep.
Their racing thoughts or negative ruminations keep them up or wake them when they would normally be sleeping and their sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the fight or flight response, is constantly active.
Turning on the Relaxation Response
People with insomnia desperately need to relax in order to sleep. They need to turn their fight or flight response off and turn on their relaxation response by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system; it sends the signals, which place the body in a calm and relaxed state.
A variety of non-prescription behaviors serve to help people relax enough to sleep:
- Listening to calming music
- Establishing a bedtime routine
- Taking a hot bath
- Journaling to purge the mind of the day's activities
- Dealing with stress and its sources
Meditation To Help Your Sleep
Studies have shown meditation providing an effective tool to alleviate insomnia. Mindful meditation seems to be particularly effective. It works by allowing meditators to focus on one thing to the exclusion of other thoughts or stimuli; they learn to let their sources of anxiety exist without actively engaging them.
Appropriately, this practice carries over into daily life as well. A 2012 study conducted by Massachusetts General Hospital and Boston University, shown the way meditators respond to negative stimuli is less reactive than the response of non-meditators. In other words, their first response to negative stimuli did not default to fight or flight.
During mindful meditation, a person chooses a focal point for their attention. It can be simply observing or counting their breaths. They may choose to gaze upon an object, a statue, painting, or photograph, with their full attention. Some people choose to repeat a sound, a word, or a phrase either mentally or aloud.
A period of mindful meditation may last from five to 10 minutes or more. According to studies, the optimum period of time to meditation is approximately 20 minutes. The effectiveness of meditation increases with frequency, so meditating twice a day, upon waking and prior to retiring for bed, is also recommended.
Mindful meditation alleviates many of the causes of insomnia:
- It eases stress, halts racing thoughts and negative ruminations
- It calms anxiety
- The practice builds strong connections within the brain by increasing gray matter density
- Meditation calms the mind and allows for improved cognitive function and focus
- It also alleviates some of the physical causes of insomnia, by lowering blood pressure and easing physical pain for people with chronic conditions like arthritis.
Treating insomnia with mindful meditation serves as a sustainable and beneficial way to support good sleep hygiene. It is portable, without side effects and may be applied as complementary treatment in addition to traditional medicines if they are needed.
Mindful meditation may be learned in many ways: from a teacher, from books and audio recordings or from videos widely available on the internet.