Sleeping Well and Meditation: Looking after your mind and body

A while ago I wrote about daily exercise and why it could be good for your body and mind, particularly if done as part of your working routine. However, there are plenty of other things you can do to look after your wellbeing – both mental and physical. A couple of these things could be sleeping better and trying meditation. I decided to try these things over the last couple of weeks to see the impact they might have on my work and on my sense of self.

Sleep is incredibly important when looking after your mind. Sleep is the time when our mind rests, when it dreams and when it recovers from the day. Without it, our bodies are at risk from diseases, our brains don’t function properly and don’t allow us to concentrate and process memories effectively. So, why do we avoid it so much? I, for one, find myself to be a master procrastinator when the clock hits 10 pm and all of a sudden I can think of 10 things I was supposed to do that day and never got around to, so I find myself in bed at 11:30 and wondering why I feel so tired the next day!

It is said that the average adult needs between seven and nine hours of sleep per night (see this article from the Sleep Foundation) – but I know people who regularly get around six hours and this causes them to be grouchy, forgetful and wondering why they feel so rough all the time. Most people put it down to stress and, true, stress definitely affects the quality of sleep you get, and sometimes wakes you up in the night covered in a cold sweat after a terrible nightmare – my most recent one being about flat hunting in Edinburgh (a particularly stressful experience might I add!).

So, if you’ve found yourself in a similar situation, why not experiment with your sleep schedule? A lot of people are set in their ways and, no matter what, their habits cannot be changed but have they really tried to change them? Long periods without an appropriate amount of sleep can lead to huge problems down the line and can affect all sorts of cognitive function as we age, so it’s worth investing the time in finding your optimum sleep duration that fits with your routine and allows you to do everything but also leaves you feeling well-rested instead of regularly on edge and fuelled by caffeine.

I experimented with this by going to bed every night for a week one hour earlier – with varying degrees of success! I did find it very difficult to force myself up to bed at that earlier time, there was always 5 more minutes of Gogglebox or just another chapter of my book. However, on the nights I did manage it? Oh wow did I feel better the next day! Even if you’re not actually sleeping for that extra time, just forcing yourself to wind down that little bit earlier makes all the difference to how your mind functions the next day, your mood and your energy levels. I’m definitely someone who needs more sleep than average but for some reason won’t let myself sleep as much as I need to (apparently, I would always resist nap time as a child and I think this has carried on into adult life!). By doing this, I’ve realised that sleep really is the ultimate act of self-care. By not sleeping as much as you need (or want) to, you’re not looking out for yourself and, to be perfectly honest, you’re letting yourself down.

While I realise there are so many factors that contribute to a good night’s sleep, here are a few of my own tips that I find useful if struggling to get to sleep and sleep well, and hopefully these can help someone else!

  1.  Reading a book – Okay, so this isn’t for everyone but I, myself, love a good story. Reading before bed avoids blue light from screens and also distracts your mind from everything else that was going on that day.
  2.  Blue Light Filters/Glasses – So, if you really can’t avoid screens before bed, a lot of devices now come with what is usually called a blue light filter. Blue light is emitted from screens and blocks the production of melatonin in the brain (the hormone that makes you feel sleepy). Depending on the brand of tech you have it might be called “Night Light” or “Eye Comfort Shield” but they all have the same purpose. Another option, for things like TVs, is blue light glasses. You can get them for a relatively inexpensive price (around £10-£15) and they just offer an extra layer of protection for your eyes and your brain when using screens at night. Check out this article on the IRIS tech site for more info.
  3.  Earplugs – Living in Edinburgh, with a lot of noise from things like construction, roadworks and ambulance sirens gives plenty of opportunities to test out noise-canceling devices! Earplugs are definitely one of the best things you can do when sleeping in a noisy environment (this includes sleeping next to a snorer). Just make sure your alarm is loud enough to wake you up the next day!
  4.  Sleep Tracking apps – If you’re someone who uses your phone as an alarm, then listen up! I’ve been using the Sleep Cycle sleep tracking app for years now and have found it very beneficial for understanding my sleep time, sleep quality and optimum wake-up time. Sleep Cycle has a built-in alarm feature that detects when you’re within your lightest sleep phase which is best to wake you up from. This ensures you feel well-rested and ready for the day ahead. It also gives you useful tips and insights into how you can improve your sleep quality and data regarding the regularity of your sleep patterns. It tells you how much you snore if that’s something you’re interested in! There are plenty of other apps out there, this is just a personal favourite.
  5. Guide to Mental Health and Wellbeing – Check out this openly licensed guide from our TES store including a collection of strategies for improving mental health and wellbeing (suitable for anyone 12+), including strategies for improving your sleep!

These are just a few tips on how to improve your sleep if you feel as though you’ve been struggling. I know implementing these into my daily routine and getting to bed that little bit earlier has helped me feel better and it might help you too!

The next experiment that I tried was meditating daily. On Spotify, there’s a podcast called “The Daily Meditation Podcast”, which is one of many meditation-based podcasts available on the streaming platform. The podcast focuses on breathing techniques as well as different types of meditation practise. You can choose a guided meditation to help with a particular issue you have been experiencing or for a certain time of day – as well as general mindfulness practise.

Now, a lot of people talk about mindfulness but aren’t really sure what it means. I did a little research about this, and it turns out that mindfulness is a particular type of meditation practise where you focus on the present moment and how you feel within it. However, one of the most important parts of this is that you use this time of introspection to experience your feelings but not attempt to interpret them or judge them. You use the meditation time to experience your feelings and let them pass as a way to reduce stress and relax the mind. Mindfulness is a form of self-awareness that helps someone to be aware of how their thoughts and emotions drive their behaviours.

For me, I have been extremely stressed out by the Edinburgh flat search that I am currently undertaking – frequently feeling very hopeless about it and having restless nights to the point where I am dreaming about the flat hunt (as mentioned above – more of a nightmare really)! The fact that it is totally out of my control frustrates me so much because I can do no more than I am already doing to try and find somewhere and YET every application is returned with “Sorry, the landlord has decided to proceed with another application.” Why, you might ask? Because there is always someone in a “better” position. PhD students, professionals, families even and, while I do not begrudge these people opportunities to find their future home, is there ever going to be a situation where I am actually the best candidate?

Anyway… back to meditation. The guided meditation for hope, in particular, made me re-frame this perspective. Spending ten minutes just listening to my emotions, acknowledging how I was feeling and that it was valid in that moment helped me to see that it isn’t the end of the world. I have to believe that something will come up – however the process is totally draining and I am totally exhausted by it and won’t be able to stop looking any time soon. So, no, meditation did not solve all my problems but it did help me re-frame my thoughts and help me concentrate on the daily work I am doing.

While I don’t know if this practise will work for everyone, I think regularly taking the time to listen to yourself – your thoughts, emotions and body – is valuable and helps you understand yourself and why you behave in certain ways which is something everyone should know about themselves.

If you want to give it a go, there are plenty of options out there:

  1. Headspace – The classic. Advertised everywhere, Headspace is the go to app for people wanting to introduce meditation into their lives. It also has other features to aid sleep and just increase self-awareness. However, watch out for the paid features!
  2. UCLA Health Guided Meditations –  These meditations are great and available in 13 different languages! They can be streamed from their website or via the free UCLA mindful app. These meditations are also licensed under a creative commons license!
  3. The Daily Meditation Podcast – Available on Spotify and from the free app “Declutter the Mind”. This is the podcast I’ve been listening to over the last week or so. It has so many episodes on a huge range of topics, and most episodes are only 10-15 minutes long so definitely not a huge commitment and a great way to introduce meditation into your life. It’s also available for free at their website.
  4.  YouTube – Now, I haven’t done the research on this, but just from a quick search I can find so many meditation podcasts/videos available on Youtube. YouTube is a huge repository so there’s bound to be something available for everyone.
  5. Meditation for children – this free OER on TES has been used by teachers to help calm and focus children’s attention. Great for teachers and parents alike wanting to bring some calm into their environment. Click here to view “Listening and Calming ‘ Meditation ‘ by Massenet” on TES.

I really hope this helps someone who might have been struggling with sleep and/or anxiety (like I have recently!) and don’t forget help is always available if you need it.

Header image: “Baby gorilla sleeping” by bartdubelaar is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0