Monday, December 27, 2010


"... [H]e grants sleep to those he loves." (Ps 127:2) [NIV]

In this frenetically paced world far too many people find themselves unable to turn their brains off at night. In time, these people often develop insomnia. Even when they manage to get to sleep, they still worry subconsciously.

I have seen this happen to so many of my former students-at-law, especially those who now work as lawyers in the “big end of town”. The pressure of billable hours often leads to anxiety about the future. “All that worrying, obsessing, and ruminating can increase risk of illness and disease. When the mind worries, the body responds,” says Dr Jeffrey Greeson, a clinical health psychologist at Duke University.

Greeson knows what he’s talking about. He conducted a study that followed 151 generally healthy but stressed adults. They underwent some 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training which involved, among other things, instruction in and use of various meditation techniques.

The study showed that MBSR training resulted in statistically significant improvements in the participant group, including a 26% increase in overall sleep quality, a 16% reduction in sleep disturbances, a 25% decrease in the frequency of prescription or over-the-counter sleep medication use, and a 28% reduction in participants reporting sleepiness during the day.

Other studies, too, have found that Mindfulness can be therapeutic for sleep disturbances. See, for example, this 2005 journal article which reported on a study examining the effects of an 8-week MBSR program on the sleep quality of a heterogeneous sample of 63 cancer patients. Overall sleep disturbance was significantly reduced and participants reported that their sleep quality had improved. In addition, the patients experienced a significant reduction in overall stress, mood disturbance and fatigue.

Mindfulness teaches you not to resist whatever arises in consciousness. If there’s worry, you note and observe it, and acknowledge the worry thoughts. With regular practice, you learn to remain calm and alert and unfazed by what would otherwise throw you into a spin.

If you are having trouble either getting to sleep or staying asleep, bring your attention and awareness to what is going on in both your mind and your body. Are you worrying or thinking about something? Notice that, label the thoughts or emotions if you wish, and simply bring your mind back to observing your thoughts and emotions. Don’t fight them or resist them. Let them be. Give them no power. Do the same with your body. Bring your full attention to, and scan, your body.  Are you holding tension in any part of the body? Note it, and let it be.

Although I am a great believer in the "power of positive thinking" and a fan of its leading progenitor and expositor Dr Norman Vincent Peale (for more on him see this address of mine), with Mindfulness there is no need to replace every negative thought with a positive one. You simply note and acknowledge the negative thought, but you don’t allow it to cause you distress.

So, practise Mindfulness ... and sleep well ... naturally. (This blog sets out a simple form of mindfulness sitting meditation.)

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