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The Best Ways to Navigate Sleepless Nights

Writer: Erin Lee

Mindfulness and Sleep

I know that many of us living in the city don't sleep very well.

Why would we, when we need to take care of so many things at the same time, attend to back-to-back matters, and almost always go to bed with the mind still spinning with activities, thoughts, and feelings from the day?

When we climb into bed at night, thoroughly exhausted and all ready to turn in, we may struggle to fall asleep. We may also find ourselves waking up in the middle of the night and unable to go back to rest. We toss and turn, fret over how much time we have left before we need to get up again, and feel anxious and dreadful about facing the next day.

How would mindful living help you with this problem? If you were to approach a mindfulness teacher about your sleep issues, they will most likely advise you that moments of sleeplessness are the perfect time to practice mindfulness.

And they're actually giving really sound advice. This is not about taking advantage of sleepless moments and making full use of the time to hone the skills of mindfulness. This is also not about curing our insomnia. While mindfulness is not the answer to our sleep issues, it definitely supports us in more effectively navigating sleepless nights.

Here's how we can do it.


Not being able to sleep when we want or need to can feel very unpleasant. When the mind meets with an unpleasant experience, it jumpstarts our reactive mode, and we feel the need to not be this way.

We reject the fact that we are not able to sleep. We start getting frustrated with the endless stream of thoughts occupying the mind, or how restless and uncomfortable the physical body feels. Our attention towards ourselves becomes more forceful and unkind. We begin to question why we can't sleep. The thought of not getting enough rest brings anxiety. Such reactivity, which engages the mind, further perpetuates the inability to fall asleep.

The thing is, the more we struggle with the experience of being awake, the more wakeful we become. We also feel more tension from the futile struggle.

But your experience will start to shift when you learn to accept your present experience as it is. Try stating the following matter-of-factly:

"Right now, I'm not sleeping."

We know that experiences always change - the body constantly changes, our state of mind constantly changes, and there is no need to push away what's already here, or hope for what's not here or not ready to come.

Once we acknowledge the fact that we are not sleeping, we stop fighting reality, and the unnecessary tension we had created will disappear in its own time.

This is half the problem solved.


Next, try bringing your attention away from the headspace, and gently anchor it to the body.

Why the body?

While thoughts overwhelm us easily and can be rather difficult to work with, physical sensations in the body are more tangible and easier to pay attention to.

Rest your awareness on the whole framework of the body in its lying down posture, and with curiosity notice what's going on.

How is this body feeling right now?

One moment at a time, take note of the physical sensations that are present in the body - temperatures (coolness, warmth), weight (heaviness, lightness), pressure (tightness, relaxedness), subtle movements (tingling, pulsing, flowing).

Don't anticipate yourself calming down. If you are questioning why you're not falling asleep yet, your attention has wandered away from the body to engage with the mind, and you can be certain you are not going to be feeling drowsy anytime soon!

So whenever your attention drifts away to the headspace, gently return it to the body. Practice this anchoring skill over and over again.

The body scan, a foundational mindfulness practice where we pay attention to the whole body systematically and one part at a time, can be very helpful for training the mind to become more still and settled. In fact, a lady I coached some years back had been suffering from insomnia over the past two decades, and after practicing the body scan every day for six weeks she found herself being able to sleep through the entire night!

Do note, though, that we don't practice the body scan to fall asleep. In fact, we make it a point to stay wakeful throughout the entire practice.

You might also be wondering if you could pay attention to your breath instead during sleepless nights. You absolutely can, if this is a practice that works well for you. Let's not forget that the breath is also a function of the body, and so breath awareness is essentially body awareness.

See a guide to mindful breathing here.


What do you do before going to bed at night? What is happening for you in the final hour before you turn in?

It helps to review the way you wind down at the end of each day (but don't do this review during a sleepless night!), and gain some insight into the impact your habits have on your sleep.

Are you on your device, checking emails, chatting, watching a show, or mindlessly scrolling through social media?

Are you engaged in stimulating conversations right before sleeping?

Did you have a heavy dinner or supper, and did you give your body enough time to process the food?

After assessing these habits, look into how you'd like to design this part of your day, so that you create the conditions for a more restful night.

Give yourself at least thirty minutes to an hour to wind down at night. And this means doing your best to stay away from anything that may be too stimulating or energising, especially for the mind.

Instead, explore replacing those unhelpful activities with the following:

  • Meditation (this one is pretty obvious)

  • Mindful movements (yoga, stretching, walking, etc.)

  • Journaling

  • Read a physical book (try to stay away from devices and overly engaging content or storylines)

  • Listen to soothing music

Sleep is generally a complex topic that involves various biological, psychological, and environmental factors that affect how well we rest, and it may be difficult to identify what exactly is causing the problem. But bringing mindful awareness to our way of life as well as intentionally practicing it can be very helpful for improving our sleep quality and getting through those dreaded sleepless nights with greater ease and calmness.


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