Mindfulness and ‘brain training’ for sleep disruption
By Leona McDonnell
From my experience, when you are mentally, emotionally or physically unwell or feeling so consumed by anything or everything, the night can be one of the longest and loneliest places to be.
Whether you live alone or you have others living in the same house, when fear, worry, anxiety, panic and perhaps sleep disruption sets in, you can feel like you are the only person in the world experiencing these sensations and that you are the only person in the world awake through no choice of your own at that particular time.
With the normal pace of life, let alone being in a pandemic, many of us are finding it increasingly difficult to switch off our minds, to detach from our phones, social media, the news and so much more. We may be feeling somewhat threatened, tired, frustrated and a longing for the pandemic to be over and for life to return to ‘pre-Covid normal’.
It is not surprising that our sleep, rest and repair time can be comprised as with such constant supply of data, information, reports, it is getting much harder for us to switch off at bedtime. It is getting more difficult to let go and detach from case numbers, outbreaks, general sickness at this time of year, worry, fear, anxiety and frustration.
This is where ‘mindfulness’ and ‘training your brain’ to cope with your current experience in the present moment can really help if you are experiencing a busy and invasive mind, particularly at night time and resulting in disturbed sleep patterns.
Using one or any of your five senses to bring awareness to your current experience, for example sleep disruption, but without the mental DJ playing tracks, of fear, anxiety, frustration, the day just passed, the day yet to come, helps us to just deal with and cope with ‘only’ the fact you are finding it difficult to sleep in that moment.
You can detach from all the background noise by using your ‘touch’ sense to place your hands on your tummy, maybe even one hand on your heart and one hand on your tummy and then engage your ‘breathing’ to help anchor you into the moment as you are experiencing it.
I find that looking at the clock to see how long you have been awake does not help! Concentrating and focusing on how uncomfortable and disrupted you feel does not help either!
Engaging my breath and using a ‘counting technique’ while breathing works well. I love to breathe in through my nose for a count of 7 and then blow the breath out through my mouth for a count of 11. This is called ‘7/11 Breathing’. Some people like to breathe in for a count of 4 and then breathe out for a count of 4, perhaps even holding your breath for a count of 4 before releasing it.
Listening to some gentle music or a guided meditation also really helps me to detach from all the clutter and noise inside of my head and just focus on the melody or words as I use my breath as my anchor to peace, tranquillity and rest in the experience itself.
By using these tips and Mindfulness exercises, you can ‘train your brain’ to experience just the experience itself, like not being able to switch off your mind and sleep, without engaging with all the associated thoughts, fear, drama’s, emotions that our minds like to convince us is real and happening.
A quote I love to use in my teachings is that by Mark Twain, who was a famous American Humorist, Novelist and Travel Writer. It goes: “I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” (Source)
How to use mindfulness and ‘brain training’ to help with sleep disruption?
The following is a step by step guide on how to use Mindfulness and ‘brain training’ to help with sleep disruption:
1. Commit to yourself to detach from any news reports, social media, scrolling on your phone, replying to text messages or emails for at least 2 hours before you plan to go to bed.
2. Before you are ready to get into your bed, in a seated position either propped up in bed or in a chair outside of your bed, gently connect with your breath and to your present moment by taking a breath in through your nose and slowly blowing it out through your mouth.
3. Continue this pattern until you can feel your neck, shoulders, back and legs starting to loosen up and to let go of the day’s stresses and strains. Feel your body becoming more weighted.
4. Now place one hand on your heart and one hand on your tummy and on your next in-breath, count to 7 in your mind and on corresponding out-breath, count to 11 in your mind. Continue in this easy, relaxed and soft rhythm for as long as you wish.
5. If your mind wanders at any stage during your count and breathing, which it will, as our minds do not naturally stay still, start your count again from 1 as you breathe in for a count of 7 and then blow the breath out for a count of 11.
This is how you ‘train your brain’. Every time you notice that your mind has wandered, gently bring it back and start your breath count again without any judgement. You are not failing when this happens. You are actually more present in the moment as you have noticed that your mind has wandered and you then gently bring it back to the present moment by using your breath.
6. Continue this practice for as long as feels comfortable to you. You may start with just 2-4 minutes of practice, but you can slowly build this practice up to even 20-30 minutes. Just like training your body in the gym, you are training your mind to focus in present moment awareness by using an anchor like your breath and sense of touch.
7. If you awake in the night and are experiencing difficulty in returning to sleep, you can follow the steps above, perhaps while lying down in your bed this time, again for as long as it takes to quieten the noisy and disruptive DJ playing in your head and to allow your body to relax in the present moment.
Leona McDonnell, Mindfulness and Wellness