Can't Sleep -- The Meditation Cure

Most of what keeps us awake is stress. And meditation can be just the thing to relax your mind to let yourself deeply rest and sleep.
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There are times in life where we just cannot sleep. We toss and turn the night away, hoping upon hope to fall back to sleep again. Whether it be for short intermittent periods during stressed and challenging times, or long years of sleeplessness caused by chronic tension, insomnia can be like the quiet beast in the dead of night that slowly drains our energy, making us vulnerable and weary, tired and depressed.

If insomnia becomes chronic, we may find ourselves taking natural remedies like melatonin or magnesium, but if those don't work, we can end up reaching for alcohol, or other kinds of drugs, including stronger pharmaceutical medications, in our basic stressed attempt to meet our biological need to fall asleep.

Most of what keeps us awake is stress. And meditation can be just the thing to relax your mind to let yourself deeply rest and sleep.

When we worry we create stress hormones and chemistry that tell the body that something is wrong. It can trigger the sympathetic nervous system which is the part of the autonomic nervous system that is responsible for producing the fight-or-flight response. When this occurs, these stress hormones can elevate, causing the heart rate to increase and blood pressure to rise. To us, this feels like nervousness, worry, or anxiety -- and this tension can literally keep us up all night.

When the body is tense the sympathetic nervous system is telling the body, there is danger, and to be ready. Something as ordinary as watching the news before going to sleep, or playing a game on a smart phone can create a stress chemistry in the body that impacts our entire body and our sleep pattern.

So how do we get back to sleep? For thousands of years meditation breathing techniques have helped people get back to sleep by inducing a biology of relaxation. This is good news, because breathing isn't something you need to buy or go to a doctor for. We can simply breathe!

When we feel safe, when we are relaxed, the body begins to quickly respond to the fight-or-flight response that originates from stress. We can easily replicate the relaxation response by changing our breath patterns. The breath is the governor that both responds and controls the stress reaction.

But, believe it or not, there is a correct way to breathe and many of us are not doing this. So here are the things to remember:

1 -- Don't hold your breath.
This is probably the most important thing I could tell you about breathing. When the breath is stressed the body is stressed, and when the breath is held it very quickly affects the autonomic nervous system, which starts the neural/chemical chain of response that can eventually trigger fight-or-flight. Just by remembering to breathe your whole physiology will relax.

2 -- Breathe deeply.
Start to take deeper breaths -- always through the nose -- on both the inhalation and exhalation. Try inhaling for three to five seconds, then exhaling for the same. When you can't sleep, try doing ten of these deep breaths in a row. This will start to change your physiology and create a calm meditational state that will help you sleep.

3 -- Make sure the breath is not "reversed."
This is less known but very, very important in terms of your mental state and also your physical one. When the breath is natural, the belly gently expands as you inhale and contracts as you exhale. When this breathing pattern is reversed because of mental or physical tension, the whole body begins to react in a series of autonomic responses like dominos that can trigger a stressed state. You can't meditate if you are in stress. And you definitely can't sleep.

You can check yourself now. Put your hand on your belly as you inhale. As you inhale, the belly should gently rise. When you exhale your belly should gently descend. If it's not doing that, the body is stressed and in a reversed pattern. Changing this one aspect can help you get back to sleep and also improve your immune system and overall health.

4 -- Finally, add a phrase or a meditation affirmation as you are breathing in this natural and healthy way, like:

I am relaxed and at ease.
I breathe out tension with every exhalation.
All is well with me.

This will even further deepen your state of relaxation. In doing so, you are actually performing a mini-meditation. You are teaching yourself to relax on demand. You will begin to realize that you have control over your body and emotions in ways you hadn't realized, and finally, finally, get back to sleep.

Diana Lang is a spiritual teacher and author of OPENING TO MEDITATION --