Statistics show lots of Americans are struggling to get a decent night’s sleep. About 1 in 3 U.S. adults report not getting enough sleep every day; and approximately 40 percent report falling asleep unintentionally during the middle of the day at least once in the past month, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).
Wellness gurus preach that stress management techniques like mindfulness and mediation can help with our slumber deficit. What does the science say?
One study, published in May 2020 in the journal Sleep, found that older adults who underwent mindfulness-based treatment for insomnia (MBTI) fell asleep more quickly at night and also spent less time lying awake at night. Another study published in the same issue of Sleep coupled mindfulness training with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). That study found that adding mindfulness to CBT significantly improved several measures of sleep quality and also reduced pain among a group of poor sleepers with chronic pain conditions.
More recently, a study published in February 2023 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health revealed that online mindfulness-based interventions like mindfulness-based stress reduction improved sleep quality and reduced insomnia symptoms (among Italian participants experiencing interrupted and poor sleep during the pandemic).
“At this point, mindfulness-based treatment for insomnia is established and considered effective,” says Fiona Barwick, PhD, clinical associate professor and director of the Sleep and Circadian Health Program at Stanford University School of Medicine in California, who coauthored the mindfulness-CBT study.
These recent studies offer more data to support what previous research has shown.
How Does Mindfulness Help With Slumber?
Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, director of research and innovation at the Mindfulness Center at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, has led or contributed to dozens of studies on the therapeutic uses of mindfulness training. He’s currently looking at the benefits of an app-based mindfulness program for sleep improvements among people with moderate-to-severe anxiety.
He says that a lot of people who come to his clinic report sleep problems, and runaway worry often seems to be the cause. “I ask them: ‘When your head hits the pillow, do your thoughts ramp up? Do you start thinking and regretting or worrying?’ And 95 percent of the time, people say yep, that’s it,” he says.
Mindfulness teaches people to recognize and set aside the agitating, arousing, or worrisome thoughts that repel sleep. “Mindfulness helps people disengage from those thoughts,” Dr. Brewer says. It helps people identify that they are stuck in a habit loop — a loop of worrying and anxiousness, he explains. “It’s about helping them see how unrewarding that is.”
Why does it work? It works because of the daily practice, Brewer says. That practice often involves short (usually 10- to 15-minute) training sessions that teach people greater awareness of the thoughts that are flowing unbidden through their mind, as well as the effects those thoughts have on their feelings and behavior. Over time, people can change their relationship to those thoughts so that they aren’t caught up with or bothered by them (even when they’re not specifically practicing), he says.
It’s important to note that it’s not that you’re ignoring the worrisome thoughts or stressors in your life (because sometimes, of course, those worrisome thoughts represent real problems we need to face). It’s a matter of correctly recognizing when you’re doing the real work of facing and doing something about those thoughts versus ruminating over them in a way that is not helping (and getting in the way of things like your sleep).
Mindfulness teaches people not to struggle or attempt to control the experience of lying awake at night. “It’s about accepting that moment and trusting that your sleep system will give you the sleep you need,” Dr. Barwick explains.
That means mindfulness may be the antidote to a lot of people’s sleep woes. “Mindfulness is a really good way to manage stress — probably one of the most effective ways,” she says.
But it’s worth noting that mindfulness doesn’t necessarily count as a quick fix for poor sleep, explains Susie X. Fong, MD, a sleep medicine physician at the University of California, Los Angeles. Starting a mindfulness practice to help you better manage stress takes time and repetition; you develop a better relationship with stress over time, she explains. “Taking up these practices should be more of a lifestyle shift.”
Can Meditation Help With Sleep Too?
Meditation techniques focus on calming the mind and improving overall well-being by connecting the mind and body. Mindfulness is a type of meditation practice.
And research shows that other meditation practices, in addition to mindfulness, can improve sleep, too. For example, a study published in September 2021 in the journal, Sleep and Vigilance surveyed 413 adults who attended a four-day meditation retreat and found that after completing the retreat, the participants reported a significant improvement in how well and how long they slept. They practiced “hollow and empty meditation,” a type of guided meditation that focuses on breathwork.
Other research suggests that meditation can affect production of melatonin, the hormone the body naturally produces to help you fall asleep.
And there’s some evidence that various types of meditation (like vipassana) can enhance quality of sleep by increasing time meditators spend in deep REM and slow-wave sleep stages.
How to Use Mindfulness or Meditation to Improve Your Sleep
Curious if practicing mindfulness or meditation could help improve your sleep? Here’s what you should know.
Know if Your Sleep Troubles Are the Type Mindfulness and Meditation Can Help With
Mindfulness isn’t necessarily the solution to every sleep problem. Barwick says that mindfulness probably won’t help people who wake up at night due to sleep apnea or circadian rhythm disorders. Ditto those who can’t stay asleep because of a heavy drinking habit or a medication side effect.
But for anyone whose sleep struggles are caused by (or involve) periods of worry or anxiousness — including those who can’t sleep because of restless leg syndrome (RLS) — mindfulness training should provide a benefit.
“Especially for people who are anxious, mindfulness is a helpful technique,” she adds.
Both Brewer and Barwick say that daily practice is important if you want to see results.
“For someone with long-standing insomnia, they know exactly how their night is going to unfold,” Barwick says. “They’ll lie there, worried, thinking about how tomorrow will be a disaster.”
“But when people practice being mindful,” she adds, “they can learn to let those feelings and thoughts pass without all the negativity and worry.” For many, that’s the key that unlocks the door to sleep. The consistency of practicing over and over again is what helps make it a habit.
Consider an App
And, especially in the beginning, an app or some other resource that will guide you through a practice is helpful.
“Headspace I think does a good job of helping people cultivate daily practice,” Barwick says. She also mentions 10 Percent Happier and Calm as two apps that have helped her sleep patients. The people in Brewer’s sleep study used the Unwinding Anxiety mindfulness app, which he helped develop and which some of his work has validated as an effective intervention for anxiety.