Dr Megan Jones Bell
Chief Science Officer, Headspace
Lack of sleep is the number one trigger of stress for the majority of Brits – but mindfulness and meditation has been linked to improving the quality of sleep.
In these information-heavy, technology-driven days, many of us live at a frantic pace. We’re always rushing somewhere, our phones are always on, and our brains are always overloaded.
“We’re inundated with information,” agrees Dr Megan Jones Bell, Chief Science Officer at Headspace, a global leader in mindfulness through its app and online content offerings. “Not only that, but a lot of the content we’re consuming is worrisome, particularly if we’re reading the news headlines.”
In bed at night, we might start thinking about the problems we’ve encountered during the day, or the problems we might encounter in the future. No wonder many of us have trouble sleeping.
The problem is, the more pressure we put on ourselves to fall sleep, the more frustratingly awake we feel.
“Just because you’d like it to be time to sleep, doesn’t mean that your brain is going to slow down and let you sleep,” says Dr Jones Bell. “That’s where mindfulness can help. Mindfulness is the ability to be present in the moment and to be free from distraction with an open mind and a kind heart. It’s to have compassion for yourself and for the world around you. It can help reduce stress, job-related burnout, depression and anxiety, as well as improve your focus.”
If you’re feeling a bit foggy when you wake up, meditation can help you set an intention for your day and be your best self in your interactions with others.
Daytime meditation for better focus and improved sleep
One way to achieve mindfulness is through meditation, something that Dr Jones Bell has experienced personally. “Meditation has helped me in my day-to-day, moment-to-moment life for at least a decade,” she says. “When I meditate and apply mindfulness to my life, I’m more patient with my husband, I’m more present for my son, I listen more effectively to my co-workers, I’m more compassionate to strangers. I’m happier with myself and I feel calmer and more focused.”
To sleep better at night, Dr Jones Bell advises meditating during the day, ideally first thing in the morning. “If you’re feeling a bit foggy when you wake up, meditation can help you set an intention for your day and be your best self in your interactions with others.”
You’ll also improve your sleep if you use mindfulness activities to reduce daytime ‘hyperarousal’ — overloaded feelings of stress or anxiety. “We have to give our brains the chance to recover and take a break,” notes Dr Jones Bell. “That could be with a mindful walk, a guided meditation, or even just making a cup of tea and being really focused on the smell of the tea. Essentially, you can be present in anything you do, which can help buffer the effects of chronic stress that many people experience.”
Living in the present gives you a feeling of control
One of the most important things we can do to improve sleep quality is to wake up at the same time every day.
“Having a consistent sleep/wake time is much more important than having a consistent bedtime,” says Jones Bell, who also advocates a wind down ritual before bed, such as reading a book or listening to some music.
“Plus, improve your sleep hygiene by ensuring you’re in a darkened room that’s the right temperature.” Even so, she points out that researchers found that a group of people aged 55 and older with significant sleep disturbances benefitted more from mindfulness awareness practice (MAP) than improved sleep hygiene practices.
Technology can impact our sleep hygiene, especially via the blue light of a phone screen when staring directly into the phone. However, tech can also be a force for good. Sleep by Headspace offers sleepcasts, sleep music, wind downs, soundscapes, and guided exercises to help with waking up in the night and easing the mind into a truly restful night’s sleep.
“Technology is neutral,” notes Dr Jones Bell. “It’s how we engage with it and control it that affects us.”
Control is key to mindfulness, too. “Mindfulness is beneficial because it puts you in the driving seat,” says Dr Jones Bell. “Living in the present gives you more control over how you spend your time and where to focus your thoughts. And that’s extremely empowering.”