What to Do When You Can’t Sleep

Meditation and mindfulness can help you get the shut-eye you need. Joseph Emet on how to feel more rested.

Joseph Emet2 February 2023
Photo by Peter Glass / Milennium Images

Consider the comfort of your bed. Are you enjoying it, or are you mentally somewhere else, stressing about something that happened during the day or might happen tomorrow? Mindfulness practices promote being in the here and now over being in the past or the future—being in your senses over being in your thoughts. In helping you to be present, mindfulness meditation can cultivate feelings of contentment, peace, and happiness. When it’s time to go to bed, these feelings translate into a relaxed attitude and better sleep.

Clarity about the difference between meditation and rumination is important for an optimal sleep routine. Meditation is intentional; the intention can be to let go of thoughts instead of following them, or a resolve to focus on the breath.

In contrast, rumination happens spontaneously. Studies show that we spend 30 to 50 percent of our mental activity in thoughts that are neither related to what we’re doing nor to our surroundings. This can be a problem at bedtime as the body has trouble telling thoughts from reality. Thus, if your thoughts are replaying an argument you had earlier in the day, then your heart rate, blood pressure, and level of stress hormones will match those feelings instead of feelings that will foster a peaceful drift into sleep. Meditation can help you go to sleep, whereas rumination can keep you awake.

Although I didn’t start meditating in order to sleep better, a good night’s sleep has been one of the unexpected gifts of meditation. I use the two essential practices of focusing on the breath and letting go of thoughts every night. My personal challenge has been going back to sleep after waking up at night—a problem that affects up to 35 percent of us. Now when I wake up, I sit on the edge of the bed and do a period of meditation. After a short time, my mind is peaceful, and I’m ready to fall back to sleep.

If you find meditation challenging, try the following steps. Do each step for three breaths.

1. Focus on Your Breath

Breathe slowly and deeply from the diaphragm, concentrating on the sensations of breathing.

Always breathe through your nose. The nose makes important contributions to your health. Glands in the sinuses produce nitric oxide, which helps dilate the blood vessels and improve circulation. The nose humidifies and filters the air.

Is one nostril blocked? Lie on the other side. This unblocks it within a few minutes. Are both nostrils blocked? Cup your hand at the faucet and fill your nose with cold water for a few seconds. A blocked nose isn’t necessarily due to mucus, so blowing your nose may not always fix it. Sometimes the cause is the erectile tissue inside the nose. Nasal blockage and mouth-breathing contribute to snoring, which in turn may interfere with sleep.

2. Do a Body Scan

A body scan is systematic. You start at one end, say the feet, and work your way up—focusing on different parts of the body, noticing any tension, and letting it go. Some yoga teachers offer a shortened version of a body scan at the end of a class. That was my first introduction to it, and I’d sometimes notice fellow yoga practitioners falling asleep in class while doing it.

Whether on the yoga mat or in bed, a body scan is effective as a relaxation technique.

When I lead a group through a body scan, I start by asking people to feel if one foot is colder than the other, and I ask them to notice the pressure they feel on the buttocks from sitting. (We are usually sitting in a meditation class.) Then we work our way up. When we come to the neck, I note that the head is ten pounds heavier for each inch it’s leaning forward. I notice a few people straightening up as I say that. Coming to the facial muscles, I usually quote Thich Nhat Hanh: “Sometimes I smile because I’m happy, and sometimes I’m happy because I smile.” I also remind people of the old adage: “The face is the mirror of the mind.”

A body scan is a good practice for body awareness and relaxation. Focusing on the body works as an antidote to being in our thoughts, for the body is always here now, whereas thoughts can be anywhere, anytime. We need that grounding at bedtime.

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Photo by iStock.com / Boris Jovanovic

3. Conduct a Scan of Your Emotions

Notice with compassion what’s on your mind. The psychological term “negativity bias” refers to our tendency to think more about negative things and to accord them more importance. This creates anxiety rather than happiness, and discontent rather than contentment. Both can interfere with sleep.

The first step in overcoming the negativity bias is being aware of it. Then with a smile, urge your mind to notice that the glass it sees as half-empty is also half-full. We tend to take what we have for granted, and this gets in the way of contentment. Reach for contentment. Look at all the things you take for granted and appreciate life’s blessings.

4. Focus on What You Want

Thinking doesn’t stop when we go to bed. There’s no “off” button. Forceful directions, such as saying to yourself, “I will stop thinking,” don’t work.

Give yourself positive directions instead. An obvious example of this is what happens when you say, “I will not think of a pink elephant.” You think of a pink elephant! But think of a blue elephant instead, and the pink elephant disappears. Thus, “I will not think of that argument I had with my spouse,” is likely to be counterproductive. It’s better to say to yourself, “I will focus on my breath.”

5. Let Go

The goal of doing your best is more realistic than the goal of being perfect. Keep in mind that we control our intentions and our actions, but not the results of our actions. With hindsight, we may see what we should have done; however, that knowledge wasn’t available during the moment we acted.

“I’ve done my best today; may all people be happy and well” is a soothing evening prayer. It celebrates a compassionate heart while tacitly acknowledging its limits.

If your mind serves you self-bashing thoughts at night, turn them toward self-appreciation. Focus on your motives and your efforts—the things that you do control.

Our culture says, “If at first, you don’t succeed, try harder.” Such messages are valuable in certain areas. For example, if we try harder, we can run faster, at least to a certain extent. But in areas where we don’t have conscious control, trying harder doesn’t work at all; it’s often counterproductive. Instead of helping, the extra effort gets in the way. Sleep is one of those areas.

Striving or worrying about sleep only makes it more difficult to attain. Just focus on your breathing. Let go of everything else.

Once you’ve cycled through these five steps, extend the meditation period by continuing with conscious breathing, or try repeating the steps from the beginning.

If you don’t fall asleep after a reasonable time of meditating, get out of bed. Put yourself to work doing something that needs to be done. Do this with a positive mindset, considering the extra time as a gift. Use up your energy. You’ll check off an item or two from your to-do list, and you may feel more inclined to sleep afterward.

Finally, be aware that pairing meditation with certain lifestyle choices is particularly effective for nurturing healthy sleep patterns. Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “Everything relies on everything else in the cosmos in order to manifest—whether a star, a cloud, a flower, a tree, or you and me.” So, a sleep problem also has the nature of interbeing—it doesn’t exist alone. Our lifestyle, including our caffeine consumption and the amount of exercise we do, has a bearing on how well we sleep.

Caffeine doesn’t affect everyone the same way. For some people, it can stay in the blood for more than nine hours. It turns out that 40 percent of us are fast caffeine metabolizers; 15 percent of us are particularly slow at it; and the rest fall somewhere in between. If you know someone who drinks cup after cup and then sleeps peacefully, don’t try to imitate them. It may not work for you. A good way to find out how coffee affects your sleep is to go without it or only drink the decaffeinated stuff for a week.

Studies show that regular exercise correlates with better sleep. These days, over half of all work is done while sitting at a desk, so this makes intentionally finding ways to exercise all the more necessary. Bike to work if you can, find a gym close by, or run. Do what you need to do to get a daily dose of exercise. You’ll appreciate it at bedtime.

Sweet dreams, my friends!

Joseph Emet

Joseph Emet is a Buddhist teacher and author of Finding the Blue Sky: A Mindful Approach to Choosing Happiness Here and Now (TarcherPerigee).