How to learn to sleep again - 5 tips and a mindfulness exercise

Many years ago, I had a very severe burn-out. The worst thing I was suffering from was insomnia. Sometimes I could not fall asleep for many hours, even though I was totally exhausted. At other times I fell asleep, but woke up in the night and stayed many hours awake and most of the time my night was over around 3 or 4 o'clock.

With every night I could not sleep I got more tired. It resulted in me getting more and more stressed and then being even less able to sleep in the following night. This is how I started to read articles and went to talks on how to sleep. Nothing helped.

Luckily, in the meantime my sleep is very good. The main change happened to me when I started to practise mindfulness. By learning how to deal with stress in my life and how to unwind, I spent calmer days and ultimately my nights became calmer as well. After months and months of sleeping pills and doctors' visits, it only took me a few weeks of mindfulness practice until I started to sleep better.

In the following article I am sharing with you some of the things I learnt about how to spend a restful night's sleep.

One out of five people in the western population has trouble with sleeping at night. This includes either having problems falling asleep, waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to fall asleep again or waking up too early in the morning. It seems that people have more and more problems of having a restful night's sleep and as an effect feel tired during the day.

Research proves that lack or poor quality of sleep is bad for your health - both mentally and physically. Many effects of a lack of sleep, such as feeling grumpy, tired and not efficient, are well known. Regular poor sleep also puts you at risk of serious medical conditions, including obesity, heart disease and diabetes - and it shortens your life expectancy.

It's now clear that a solid night's sleep is essential for a long and healthy life. Enough and good sleep boosts your immunity and mood. The good news is that there are many things you can do to improve your sleep. It is not a condition which we need to suffer from all our life but we can learn to sleep again. Here are a few tips.

1. Practice mindfulness so stress doesn't build up

Research shows that the way you lead your day will influence how your night will be. If you are restless and stressed out during the day, you are likely to have a restless night. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to decrease the level of feeling stressed during the day. You can do this by including regular pauses in your day and increasing your presence to avoid mind wandering and worries.

There are many other mindfulness skills such as gratitude, acceptance, empathy and kindness towards yourself which are helpful to feel more peaceful during the day.

by practising mindfulness, you learn to increase your awareness and presence by doing the things you do more mindfully as well as specific practices and meditations that support your wellbeing.

What to avoid

Do not drink coffee or caffeine containing drinks after 4pm‚ as caffeine remains 6 to 8 hours active in your body. Also, it is better to avoid alcohol before going to sleep because this decreases the quality of your sleep. Best is to have an herbal relaxing tea before going to bed.

Have a light dinner and refrain from heavy food in the evening. This will be heavy on your body and decrease your sleep quality.

Refrain from electronics at least one hour before going to sleep. The blue screen in computers, telephones or TVs keep your brain in alert stage and prevent you from unwinding.

Once you are awake more than 20 minutes, do not stay longer in your bed but get up and do something relaxing (i.e. reading a book or meditate) until you feel tired again. If you stay in your bed you will start worrying and you might feel even less sleepy.

If you feel tired during the day and long for a nap make sure it is no longer than 45 minutes as this might deregulate your biological clock.

Do not work or watch TV in your bed. It should only be used for sleeping.

If at all possible, refrain from sleeping pills as they can make you addicted and impact your health.

Make your bedroom sleep-friendly

Your bedroom should be a relaxing environment. Experts claim there's a strong association in people's minds between sleep and the bedroom. However, certain things weaken that association, such as TVs and other electronic gadgets, light, noise, and a bad mattress or bed.

Your bedroom ideally needs to be dark, quiet, tidy and be kept at a cool temperature.

Fit some thick curtains if you don't have any. If you're disturbed by noise, consider investing in double glazing or, for a cheaper option, use earplugs.

Have a regular bed time routine

If you have difficulty falling asleep, a regular bedtime routine will help you wind down and prepare for bed. Most adults need between six and nine hours of sleep every night. By working out what time you need to wake up, you can set a regular bedtime schedule.

Invent a night time ritual if you do not have any yet so that your brain will know it is time to sleep. Also make sure you stick to the same bedtime hours every day. It is better to have the same sleeping routine all week than trying to catch up on the weekend by adding extra hours of sleep. This will only confuse your biological clock.

Make sure you wind down before going to bed

Winding down is a critical stage in preparing for bed. There are lots of ways to relax:

  • A warm bath (not hot) will help your body reach a temperature that's ideal for rest.
  • Writing "to do" lists for the next day can organise your thoughts and clear your mind of any distractions.
  • Relaxation exercises, such as light yoga stretches, help to relax the muscles. Don't exercise vigorously, as it will have the opposite effect.
  • Reading a book or listening to calming music relaxes the mind.
  • Take a mix of cold and warm foot baths to increase the blood circulation in your feet
  • Massage your feet with some warm relaxing oil.
  • Meditate or do a body scan. A body scan is a meditation where you guide your attention from one part of your body to the next. This can be very relaxing. You can either do a guided body scan or try to do it yourself.

Doing a body scan practice before going to sleep

Lie in a comfortable position on your bed or on a sofa with your feet slightly falling open and your arms next to your body.

Bring your attention to all your body parts, starting at the left foot. Simply feel the sensations that are present in each part of your body, without creating any sensations by moving, or without any expectations. It's possible that in some parts you don't feel anything at all. That's perfectly normal, then just register the absence of sensations. Start with the toes of your left foot, the foot sole, then the rest of your left foot and guide your attention slowly up your left leg until your hip.

Then turn your attention to the right side, starting with the foot until you reach the hip. Do not worry or judge yourself if you are being distracted. This is normal and happens many times in a meditation. Simply continue where you got lost and try as good as you can to concentrate on the different body parts, the bones, the skin, the sensations of contact with our clothing or your mattress.

Then feeling your pelvis and belly, your chest and your back. See if you can allow things to be exactly as they are right now - not trying to feel anything different than what is there.

Now bringing your attention to both your arms at the same time, starting at the shoulders and slowly moving downwards towards your hands and fingers, maybe feeling some tingling or warmth.

From there moving up to your neck and throat and finally onto your head. Feeling your face with your mouth, nose and eyes, your ears, the back of your head and the top. 

And if you are not asleep by then, getting a sense of your whole body as it is lying here and breathing.

You might want to try this guided bodyscan meditation. Enjoy!