If you’re struggling to drift off because you can’t stop thinking about everything you have to do tomorrow, everything that went wrong today, or something that’s worrying you on a deeper level – it might be time to pick up some tools to help you control those thoughts. That’s where mindfulness can come in handy.
Mindfulness is the basic human ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. Whenever you bring awareness to what you’re directly experiencing via your senses, or to your state of mind via your thoughts and emotions, you’re being mindful. And there’s growing research showing that when you train your brain to be mindful, you’re actually remodelling the physical structure of your brain – training your brain to keep these new ‘good habits’.
So let’s look at three mindfulness exercises we can use to train our brains to sleep a little better – from a wonderful book called Mindfulness and Sleep, by leading expert Anna Black. The exercises are not a quick fix, but with a couple of weeks of patience you could be setting yourself up for a lifetime of better sleep. With all the gadgets, tablets and books people buy to try and beat insomnia, we reckon these *free* exercises are definitely worth a try!
Exercise 1: Exploring the senses
This exercise will help you shift your mindset from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ mode – to help you let go of the mental to-do list, and just listen to your body. Move through the steps below at your own pace, as you lay in bed or sit somewhere comfy.
- Sight: What is in your line of vision right now? Notice the colours, shades, lights and darks. How many different shades of the same colour can you see? Calmly name the colours in front of you – no need to speak them aloud, just keep them in your head.
- Sound: Imagine the body is a radar picking up any sound that comes its way. Notice the sounds around you, and notice your physical responses to sounds – whether they’re pleasant or unpleasant, how do they make your body feel? If you find yourself attaching a story to a sound, acknowledge it and let it go – it doesn’t matter what the sounds mean right now, we’re just tuning in to listen.
- Smell: Take a deep breath through your nose. What do you notice? Continue to breathe in and explore the scents and smells – notice your reactions to them (positive, negative, indifference), and then let those reactions pass.
- Taste: Become aware of any lingering taste or flavour in your mouth – is there a hint of something? Maybe not. Simply explore, without any expectation of finding anything.
- Touch: Become aware of the different textures in contact with your skin. How do they feel? How many can you name? Textiles, surfaces, temperatures – become aware of how the come and go, or how they stay the same.
- Finish by taking a moment to become aware of your body as a whole, and think about how the five senses add up to your whole experience.
Exercise 2: Body scan
This practice is intended to be done lying down, and people often find they fall asleep doing it. But it’s best to go into the practice without the pressure of expecting a certain outcome – just completing the exercise is good enough, and if it helps you drift off that’s a great bonus.
Note: sometimes strong emotions may come up when we take time to become more aware of our body – this is especially true when you’ve been through cancer and treatments, which can have a profound effect on your relationship with your body. Take it easy in this exercise, and if you begin to feel uncomfortable or distressed, please stop the exercise immediately. You can always try again later if you feel it would be healing to acknowledge and work through those feelings.
- Start off with ‘beginner’s mind’ – imagine you know nothing about this body or how it feels. What do you discover? You may notice sensations in some parts of the body but not in others, or perhaps no sensations at all. During this exercise, we’re not trying to analyse why this is, but simply bring awareness to it, and then let it go.
- Lie on your back with your legs outstretched and arms by your side – eyes open or closed. Notice the different parts of your body in contact with the bed or floor. Maybe take a deep breath and exhale loudly, feeling your body soften into the surface you’re lying on.
- Take your attention to the breath in the belly. You can place one hand on the belly to help connect you with the sensation of breathing. If at any point in the exercise, you lose your place or things feel tricky, come back to the rise and fall of your belly, and stay there as long as you wish.
- Place your hand back at your side and move your attentions from the torso down through the left leg and into the left foot. Pay attention to your toes, any feelings you notice there – numbness, tingling, warmth, textile touching skin? Notice what’s present – if you don’t feel anything at all that’s okay too.
- Move your attention in this way from the toes to the sole of your foots, the heel, the top of the foot, and then the whole foot.
- Take your attention to your breath, and in your mind’s eye imagine you’re directing the breath into and out of your foot, as if it were breathing. Continue for a few moments.
- Let go of the foot, and repeat the same exercise for your left leg.
- Move up through the leg, imagine breathing through the leg. Continue doing this for individual elements around your whole body – from your toes to the top of your head, your mouth, your back, and so on – in any order you like.
- When you have finished scanning your whole body, take your attention back to the breath again, and imagine you’re breathing in through the soles of your feet, and out through the top of the head.
- End by becoming aware of the body as a whole in contact with the surface you’re lying on.
- Note – if you have limited time to do this exercise, it’s okay to focus on one small area of your body – like your hand, your foot, or your head. Try doing both hands and noticing the differences between them. Practice being curious about your body.
Exercise 3: Bedtime story
How we relate to being awake when we want to be asleep determines the degree of suffering we experience – when we resist our experience and want it to be different, we’re disappointed with the way things are. We may create mental stories about it, catastrophising (‘this is a complete nightmare’), generalising (‘I’m never able to sleep’), blaming (‘this is all my fault, or someone else’s’), or crystal ball-gazing (‘I’m going to be so exhausted tomorrow.’).
We get so caught up in these stories that we believe them, and they can make it even harder for us to get to sleep! The first step in breaking these unhelpful thought cycles is to become aware of them. Then we can choose to respond to them, and rewrite our own bedtime story in a way that helps us feel relaxed and restful.
- Naming the monsters: Notice what particular story is being played out in your head tonight. Simply notice and acknowledge it – no need to give yourself a hard time. Are you blaming yourself? Assuming this will be the way you feel forever? Or are you thinking about how bad you’ll feel tomorrow? The more you notice these ‘stories’, the more you can undermine them and give yourself some perspective – try giving each one a funny name. ‘Naming the monsters’ is always a good way to start tackling them.
- Your perceived amount of sleep: Be aware that thinking you got less sleep than you wanted last night gives your brain cues to feel more tired. Be wary of clock-watching if you’re trying to sleep – sometimes knowing what time it is or how many hours you’ve missed can really affect your mindset and mood the next morning. Ignorance can sometimes be bliss! If you’re tracking your sleep using an app, be aware that they’re not always 100% accurate – it’s important to pay more attention to your body’s own signals and notice when it feels tired or refreshed.
- Bringing our attention into the present moment: We can direct our attention to the breath in the belly or simply become aware of the body. We can be curious about any physical sensations arising internally and externally, temperature and textiles on the skin. Bringing attention to the body right now can help to switch off those unhelpful thought narratives, and switch from ‘doing’ to ‘being’ mode. Negative stories can also manifest in physical sensations and tensions within the body – noticing these can be the first step in helping to relax them. But don’t put pressure on yourself to ‘fix’ anything now – being aware of things doesn’t mean you have to change them straight away.
These tips and more can be found in the beautifully illustrated Mindfulness and Sleep by Anna Black. Anna explains everything so simply and calmly that you almost feel she’s in the room with you, running through a calming mindfulness exercise with you. The book also runs you through a beginner’s guide to mindfulness concepts, the history of mindfulness, and everything you need to get started – we really recommend it to anyone thinking about trying some exercises (and the illustrations make it a beautiful gift.)
If you’ve tried any of the exercises above, or have a mindfulness practice of your own, we’d love to hear how it’s working for you – share your stories and tips in our Community Forum, with hundreds of other people going through cancer.