Sarah came into my office, bleary-eyed and frustrated. “Doc, I don’t understand it. I am so exhausted but when my head hits the pillow, it’s like an on button for my brain. I just can’t stop thinking!”
If you’ve ever had a restless night with an exhausted body held hostage by an unruly and overactive mind, then you know that Sarah is not alone.
Insomnia or sleep deprivation is a pervasive problem which over time can lead to serious physical and emotional conditions. Issues with sleeplessness are very common and affect up to 50% of the general population. Approximately 10% of adults in the U.S. struggle with chronic (long-standing) insomnia.
The exact role and function of sleep has been a topic of debate for researchers, but most agree that sleep serves both a psychological and physiological purpose. Sleep is important for general physical health, energy reserves, injury recovery, mood regulation, memory, work performance, and getting along with others. Over time, sleep deprivation can cause long term health problems such as high blood pressure, weight gain, diabetes, depression, anxiety and impaired immune function.
It’s pretty clear that sleep is a necessary and critical function of our bodies. We need sleep to survive. In fact, it is easier for our bodies and minds to go without food for a few days than to go without sleep. So, it’s no surprise that an entire industry has developed around the science of helping people attain the “perfect” night of sleep.
Millions have turned to prescription medications only to find a myriad of problems associated with the use of sleep aids. Medications can become addictive, cause daytime tiredness, lose their effectiveness over time, and may interact with other medications.
There is an alternative. A restful, restorative night sleep is absolutely possible without the use of medications. Medical studies have shown that an integrated approach to treating insomnia that includes mindfulness meditation, can be as effective as medications while providing better long-term health outcomes.
The Monkey Mind
Our minds are exceedingly busy – like a monkey swinging from tree to tree. And when we try to settle the body for sleep, we may become even more aware of just how busy that monkey gets.
Sleeplessness can lead to anxiety which worsens insomnia, often producing even more anxiety. It becomes a vicious cycle. Parts of your brain are activated by worry and overthinking specifically the limbic system, the amygdala and the brainstem. The amygdala, housing the “fight, flight, or freeze” system, signals that there is a perceived threat. In response, the body releases cortisol and adrenaline which keeps you alert and awake.
Hand the Monkey a Banana
One way to calm down the part of your brain that leads to the fight, flight, or freeze response is to purposefully engage other parts of your brain, specifically the frontal cortex areas.
The frontal cortex areas of the brain include executive functions associated with higher reasoning. For example, when you are focused on solving a problem or planning a strategy, you are engaging your prefrontal cortex.
A simple way to activate this area of the brain (without engaging in unhelpful rumination that can worse anxiety) is by paying attention to bodily sensations. For example, you might focus your attention on the sensations of breathing in order to give the mind a task and interrupt the anxiety loop. If focusing on the breath creates more tension (as it might for those with asthma, for example), focus attention in another part of the body such as your hands or feet.
It’s Simple, Just Not Easy
As you practice focusing your attention, you may find that the mind wanders back into worried or racing thoughts. That’s just what the mind does. Simply notice your mind has wandered and with kindness towards yourself, gently return your attention back to the object of focus. Begin again.
When notice your wandering mind and you bring it back, that’s the point at which you strengthen your capacity to direct your own attention. It’s not about doing it perfectly. Rather, it’s about noticing when you have become distracted and cultivating a kind attitude towards yourself as you redirect your attention.
Over time, the process of interrupting looping thoughts and focusing your attention on the body, becomes easier and easier. You literally build and strengthen new neural pathways.
Give it a try every day for at least two weeks and see for yourself. Consistency is the key to gently nudging your body and mind toward the rest and relaxation it needs.
About the Authors:
Dr. Burggraaff, MD is a physician who is board certified both in Otolaryngology (Ear, Nose and Throat), and in the subspecialty of Sleep Medicine. She is also a certified mindfulness teacher through the Engaged Mindfulness Institute’s 2 year training program. She has combined her careers in medicine and mindfulness to create a new approach to treating sleep problems, insomnia and anxiety. Her other great passion is being of service in remote areas of Nepal working with a humanitarian medical team lead by Roshi Joan Halifax.
Mary Linda McBride is a yoga instructor and qualified Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) teacher. She specializes in bringing mindfulness into workplace settings where stress and its resulting conditions, like insomnia and anxiety, are becoming pervasive across industries. She trained with the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute, an off-shoot of Google where there is a six-month waiting list for in-house mindfulness programs. Prior to founding Mindful Resolution, Mary Linda enjoyed a 20-year career in nonprofit management and taught nonprofit fund development at North Carolina State University.
Dr. Burggraaff and Mary Linda will be leading the Good Night Insomnia Mindfulness Based Sleep Support Weekend Workshop Saturday & Sunday March 16th & 17th. Learn More..
Photo credits: Lauren Kay – Unsplash.com