A lot of people with insomnia say the main barrier to sleep is an unquiet mind. The minute they lie down, the mind starts racing over the events of the day or sprints ahead to the next day, chewing over problems and unable to stop.
If you could put a lid on the chatter and improve your sleep by dedicating 20 minutes a day to meditation, focused breathing, and simple yoga poses, would you do it?
This is the commitment a group of insomnia sufferers made after participating in an 8-week study comparing the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) to treatment with the sleeping pill eszopiclone (Lunesta). The MBSR and the Lunesta groups experienced similar improvements in their sleep. But the MBSR group reported a lot more treatment satisfaction. Five months later, 9 participants gathered at the University of Minnesota in focus groups to discuss the effects of MBSR on their sleep and waking hours. Here are some of their comments.
Mine [my sleep] was almost immediately, positively impacted . . . I didn’t sleep longer, but I slept better. So I woke up more refreshed even though I wasn’t sleeping more, and that happened for me very quickly.
Sleep quality improved with MBSR practice. Specifically, people reported (1) getting to sleep more quickly, (2) having shorter nighttime awakenings and fewer early-morning wake-ups, and (3) waking up feeling more rested and refreshed.
Benefits of the Body Scan
The body scan is a guided meditation that several people in the group found was especially effective in halting mental chatter and helping them relax. (The body scan involves focusing your attention on body parts one by one, starting, for example, with the left big toe. With acceptance rather than judgment, you’re to notice any sensations you’re experiencing there, and continue doing the same thing through the rest of the body.)
The body scan helped keep my mind from racing, so that I could just decompress and fall asleep.
If I wake up in the middle of the night it [the body scan] seems to help me relax and get back to sleep. And a lot of times I’m back to sleep before I get past the left leg.
Better Sleep Habits
While undergoing the MBSR training, participants also learned the rules of good sleep hygiene: avoid caffeine late in the day, get up at the same time every morning, and so forth (you know the drill!).
MBSR helped in
making it a priority to do the things that we all know we are supposed to do, but we don’t necessarily do. Like not watching TV in bed, not eating chocolate at 7 o’clock at night.
Overall, MBSR training made it easier to shy away from behaviors that interfered with sleep and adopt habits that were helpful.
Benefits Beyond Sleep
Sleep wasn’t the only that improved with training in MBSR. People also reported feeling better emotionally and physically in the daytime.
I feel as though instead of getting worked up about things throughout the day and then having it be difficult to come down to relax and sleep, I feel that when I started doing the body scan [in the morning] I was at a stable emotional level throughout the day.
The yoga component of the training was helpful in increasing physical flexibility and reducing aches and pains.
It’s low impact and I don’t get stiff like I used to sitting working long hours.
Use It or Lose It
Like many techniques and skills, though, MBSR requires ongoing practice. One group member couldn’t do her customary meditation while on vacation and backslid as a result:
I noticed that the benefits left me. . . . I came back home and here was the chatter all back again. ‘I shouldn’t have said that. Shouldn’t have done that.’. . . It was all back. And . . . I couldn’t go to sleep. And when I do the meditation that chatter goes away. . . . I lay down at night and I’m not chattery.
A maintenance routine of 20 minutes a day does not sound like a big investment if the potential gains are as great as these comments would suggest. As alternative treatments for insomnia go, this one is not so demanding.
But the initial 8-week training requires a bigger time commitment. To learn MBSR techniques, group members participated in a 2½-hour class every week and a daylong silent retreat. They were also asked to do 40 minutes of home practice 6 days a week. This is the standard MBSR training program recommended by Full Catastrophe Living author Jon Kabat-Zinn.
But a 20-minute maintenance regimen that can be done at home with no special equipment and no special clothes? Especially if mental chatter and/or conditioned arousal keep you from sleeping at night, MBSR is worth a serious look.