A good night’s sleep is incredibly important for the quality of our waking life. Adults perform their best during the day after 7-9 hours of sleep the night before and teenagers and children need even more than this. However, everyday life stressors can make this very difficult to achieve because it is difficult to mentally switch off at night and our minds start racing.
According to a recent survey1 40% of people regularly sleep less than the recommended amount and 30% of people struggle to either get to sleep or stay asleep at least a few times per month. Long term sleep deprivation like this can have many negative health consequences so it is important that we do what we can to improve our quality and quantity of sleep.
What is Guided Sleep Meditation?
Guided sleep meditation uses what has long been known about the benefits of meditation to help you drift off to sleep peacefully and have a restful night. Meditation is an old practice with many forms but at its basis is the idea of being present in and aware of your body while letting go of busy or troubling thoughts.
This can be particularly useful at bedtime when a busy mind can stop us getting to sleep. The physical benefits of meditation are also conducive to a good night’s sleep because meditation has been shown to lower the heart rate and slow breathing. All of this means that it is not a technique for forcing you to sleep; if anything better sleep is just a side effect of the meditation.
Research has shown that people who attend 6 weekly sleep meditation classes have lower rates of fatigue, depression and insomnia compared to people who attended classes informing them of good sleep practices2. Another study showed that beginners taking part in just one hour of guided meditation reported reduced negative mood, fatigue, confusion and depressive symptoms as well as a lowered heart rate3.
This should be evidence for anyone who is unsure about whether they can fit some meditation into their schedule that even a minimal commitment can have huge benefits. These benefits only increase if the meditation is continued over a longer period of time.
There is a lot of free meditation advice out there; it is easy to read some tips and try unguided sleep meditation before going to bed. However if you are new to meditation then you may find guided meditation helps you to see results more quickly.
This is because meditation techniques can require some practice and trying to implement them by yourself late at night when you’re desperate for sleep can be overwhelming and end in frustration.
Guided meditation leads you through the techniques and gives you something to focus on to help you find the relaxing peaceful state that is so important. There are a huge number of websites, podcasts and apps offering guided sleep meditation so you have a wide range to choose from, many of which are free.
They are all slightly different but use various combinations of the following basic meditation techniques:
Slow and regular breathing is one of the basic tenets of meditation but it can be difficult to achieve when it is the middle of the night and you’re incredibly tired but still unable to sleep. Most guided sleep meditation offers breathing exercises, such as counting breaths, to help you keep focused.
This technique involves taking your mind away from its busy thoughts by giving it a calm visualisation. Some of the visualisations are simple, such as imagining your lungs are balloons inflating and deflating with every breath. Others are more complicated such as imagining yourself immersed in a nature scene.
Again, this can be tricky to do by yourself, especially for beginners, but it is much easier when you can focus on someone describing the scene in detail, rather than trying to make one up yourself.
This can take many forms but it involves focusing of different parts of your body in turn. Beginning with your toes you could be asked to tense and then relax the muscles in your toes, followed by your feet, then your calves etc.
Or you may be asked to focus on the feelings of your feet in the bed, then your legs, moving up the rest of your body. The exact instructions are not as important as the fact that you are focusing on being present and relaxed in your body, while freeing yourself from your busy thoughts.
We often can’t switch our busy minds off at night because we are focusing on the stress and the negatives from the day. Some sleep guided meditations ask you to instead focus on the positive aspects of the day and the things for which you are grateful in order to reduce that stress.
If you are focused on counting slowly then you are unable to focus on other negative or busy thoughts that prevent you from sleeping.
Mantras are words or phrases you find meaningful and calming. Repeating these mantras works in the same way as counting to allow you to focus on the present moment and ignore other invasive thoughts.
Music can set any mood you want, including peaceful. Classical music is great, as well as music with around 60 beats per minute, because this matches a healthy resting heart rate.
Children friendly techniques
All of these techniques can be modified so that they are appropriate for children. In fact, children tend to master meditation techniques relatively quickly due to their ability to live in the present.
Whatever guided sleep meditation techniques you choose to use, do not expect instant results. It will take some practice to undo months, or years, of negative bedtime sleep associations. Just because you have not found one effective after a night or two does not mean you need to switch to another; it can take time for the positive effects to build up.
The more you can practice meditating, the easier you will find it. Try to set aside some regular time so it becomes part of your routine. If you use it as a last resort when you can’t get back to sleep at night it can still help, but not as much.
Build it into your bedtime routine to maximize its effects. Any meditation you manage to do during the daytime will also be beneficial. There really isn’t a wrong place or wrong time for practicing meditation.
Tips to Help the Meditation
Here are some tips for your bedroom environment in order for the meditation to be as effective as possible:
Quiet and calm
Ideally your bedroom will be a quiet and calm environment. However it is not always possible to have complete quiet nowadays because many of us have noisy neighbours or traffic outside. In that case some calm noise can drown out those distractions, for instance white noise or sleep music.
There are many apps and podcasts available (free ones or paid ones) as well as videos on YouTube. Some guided sleep meditation apps also have their own white noise options specifically designed for sleep.
This does not mean your room needs to be spotless at the end of every day, but a messy room can be a distraction at a time when you are trying to wind down, which can ultimately get in the way of a good night’s sleep4. This is particularly true of electronic devices, so try not to look at screens while you are getting ready for bed.
Dark and cool
We are biologically programmed to sleep at night when it is dark and cold. Therefore a cool and dark room is the best environment for our sleep5. If you have a lot of artificial light outside your bedroom window it would be beneficial to invest in some blackout blinds or thicker curtains.
Turn the central heating down at night during the winter and open the windows or use a fan in the summer. A fan would have the additional benefit of creating some white noise.
Muse 2: The Brain Sensing Headband
While there is really no way to meditate incorrectly, it can be frustrating to be unsure of whether you are really meditating as well as you can. With traditional methods it can be difficult to tell because the changes are sometimes incremental.
Although guided meditation is more informative, it can still be difficult to know whether there is room for improvement, and if there is, then how? Rather than simply listening to meditation tips and hoping you are following them correctly, you can use the Muse 2 Brain Sensing headband.
It is designed to be worn during meditation sessions and gives you feedback in real time to let you know how effectively you are meditating. It measures your mind, heart rate, breath and body while you meditate and gives you immediate feedback through sound to help you really understand when have found your calm centre during meditation.
The Muse 2 can measure your brain activity through EEG (which measures brain waves in a perfectly safe way) to give you immediate feedback on whether your mind is still and focused during your session. If you have a busy mind you will hear stormy weather sounds and if you have a calm mind you will hear peaceful weather sounds. This helps you to stay focused on calm thoughts.
Through measuring your heart rate, the Muse 2 can also play your heart rate back to you in the form of a soothing drum beat. This extra awareness of your heart rate can help you to focus on it and keep a calm and even rhythm.
If you want to assess your breathing, ambient tones are played to let you know when your breath has reached the relaxed state that is most beneficial for your meditation.
Posture is often overlooked during meditation while people (rightly) focus on a calm mind and breathing. However, good posture will make these things easier and so the Muse 2 is constantly assessing your posture and balance, giving you feedback in real time if you begin to shift or fidget. Obviously this function is relevant for daytime meditation sessions, rather than meditation for sleep.
As well as getting feedback on all of this in real time, there is an app in which you can view the data after your session and compare to previous sessions. This can highlight specific areas you want to focus on more, for instance improving your breathing, and help you set goals and track your progress.
It can also send reminders to help you achieve those goals (e.g. 10 minutes every morning), making it great for beginners who have not formed a routine yet or may lack the motivation to start a session.
Through regularly using the Muse 2 headband during meditation practice you will gradually find it easier to slip into that relaxed meditative state. This will benefit your sleep, even when you are not using the Muse 2, because after some regular practice, if you wake up in the night you will find it easier to slip into the optimal relaxed state, thus drifting back off to sleep much more quickly.