Most of us have experienced sleep problems at some point. Relentless thoughts can create stress and frustration, wasting our precious rest time.

Are you ready to carefully rewire your usual thinking about sleep so you can soothe a restless night and recover from a busy day as nature intended?

In this article, we will gain a compassionate understanding of why your mind may have developed a reflex to think when it needs to rest. You can discover how to replace this with a relaxation reflex that will allow you to benefit from calming meditations for sleep.

How sleep meditation can help your nighttime anxiety

Clearly, you are not reading this article because you are enjoying endless nights of peace and sound sleep. You may have used all the tips for a good night’s sleep, such as

  • You have a regular sleep schedule
  • You have a bedroom that is comfortable, dark and slightly cool
  • Avoid caffeine, alcohol, sugar, exercise and exposure to blue light in the evening

Despite all this, you have trouble falling or staying asleep and wake up feeling exhausted. You can’t turn off the endless chain of busy thoughts that cause your nightly restlessness.

Sleep meditation can help your mind transition from sympathetic nervous system which is so necessary for your daily life parasympathetic nervous system which allows sleep. A supportive first step in this direction is developing a daily mindfulness meditation practice.

Of course, there are medical conditions that cause chronic insomnia, so seek professional help if your sleep disturbances persist.

1. When your day is balanced

After a day of super busy work schedule or big problems, you collapse into bed, exhausted.

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Your sympathetic nervous system has been on all day. This is necessary in the action-packed world of your daily life. Its beneficial physiological changes include increases in adrenaline secretion and breathing and heart rate, muscle contraction and pupil dilation.

Now it’s time to sleep. Your parasympathetic nervous system takes over to balance all that high alertness and activity by restoring your body to a state of calm and rest. Your heart and breathing slow and your muscles relax.

2. What the sleep disorder looks like

When these two autonomic nervous systems are out of balance, here’s what happens:

As soon as your head hits the pillow, like a reflexive action, your mind engages with a barrage of relentless thinking. Can not be:

  • Revisiting the day’s experiences
  • Regret or anger about something that happened
  • Listing what needs to happen tomorrow
  • Creating possible future scenarios and how you will deal with them
  • Panic or despair over world events
  • Different forms of anxiety

Accompanying these stressful thoughts comes a flood of stress hormones and chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that rush through your body, exacerbating feelings of stress even more.

3. Understanding your nighttime anxiety

According to research, stress is a leading cause of abnormal sleep patterns that cause short-term and chronic insomnia.

Yes, as you suspected, your thoughts are causing you anxiety, preventing you from recovering through sleep. Your mind has locked you into the sympathetic nervous system, keeping you ready for action; ready to fight or flee. You fight the tigers of your time, but all in your head and while lying on your back!

4. Why can’t I just turn it off?

At an earlier stage in your life, you may have experienced overwhelming emotions such as fear or pain. Without role models to process or soothe these, your undeveloped nervous system may have gone into fight, flight, freeze or heart reactions.

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This will involve a heavy reliance on thinking, planning, reflecting, internalizing and replaying situations in an attempt to try to make sense of your world.

All of these thinking strategies were attempts to control and overcome your emotions instead of letting them pass through you. These were the child’s best attempts to calm the overload of an undeveloped nervous system.

The random sleep benefits of a regular mindfulness meditation practice

Now that you understand why your mind may be locked in action mode, it’s time to find new ways to turn it off and activate the relaxation response that allows you to drift off to sleep. Here you learn to replace the thinking reflex with a relaxation reflex.

1. Make the relaxation response automatic

In the 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson coined the phrase “relaxation response,” a simple and apt description of the parasympathetic nervous system. He describes it as a profound physiological change in the body that is the opposite of the stress response.

He recommends practicing mindfulness throughout the day, ideally for 20 minutes, to create a reflex that more easily induces feelings of relaxation.

This way, it’s easier to trigger the relaxation response at night when you can’t sleep. Over time, this relaxation reflex will replace your thinking reflex as a defense against anxiety. The key to this is reproduced in the practice of mindfulness meditation. Let’s see what’s going on here.

2. Mindfulness Meditation – The evidence is there

As any teacher of mindfulness meditation courses will tell you, there are always people who report a significant improvement in their sleep habits as one of the benefits of meditation.

Studies show that poor sleepers who undertake mindfulness programs have less insomnia, fatigue and depression than those who undertake only sleep education.

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You see, the principles you learn when you practice mindfulness meditation also apply to sleep. It allows the parasympathetic nervous system to activate without striving, relax and notice thoughts instead of being consumed by them.

In mindfulness meditation, you connect with your body in the present moment. Usually through breathing you scan your body for tension and consciously release it and notice thoughts as they arise without engaging with them.

How guided sleep meditation can calm your nighttime anxiety

Even if you haven’t developed a new relaxation reflex through your daily mindfulness meditation practice, you can get the same benefits from guided sleep meditation every night.

Studies of sleep meditation provide evidence of improvements in sleep quality, improvements in rumination and emotional regulation, reductions in sleep problems in patients with fibromyalgia, and comparable effects compared to sleep medications.

1. What is sleep meditation?

A guided sleep meditation will mirror the natural indulgence in the rest and recovery phase you so desperately need. You are a pleasure. Here’s what it looks like:

You lie down with your headphones or earphones in and listen to a guided meditation, with someone’s warm and soothing tone of voice guiding you into a relaxed state. The background music will be at frequencies specifically chosen to slow your brain down into alpha wave sleep and then theta wave sleep.

Guided sleep meditation will usually:

  • Include visualization to help your mind go into a state of surrender, carrying
  • Recognize and notice what happens to the busy thinking mind
  • Replace this with something else
  • Bring attention back to the here and now, usually through breathing or body awareness
  • It reminds you to notice any thoughts without being overwhelmed by them

Just like in mindfulness meditation, when random thoughts come into your mind at night, you have a choice. You can get on any train of thought and follow it to its final destination, or you can simply notice, “oh, there’s another thought seeking my attention” and watch it pass.

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2. How to choose a meditation for sleep

Listen to one of hundreds of free sleep meditations on apps or Youtube. Find one where the person’s accent, tone of voice, choice of music, and height make you feel at ease.

A Youtube search for “sleep guidance meditations” offers a wide range of options to try. Here’s a sampling of the hundreds of titles:

  • Oral meditation for sleep with the sound of water
  • Fall asleep after 12 minutes
  • Get rid of anxiety before sleep
  • Clear the clutter from your mind
  • Sleep talk
  • Glass elevator meditation.

Have fun trying any you like, but then pick just one and repeat it every night for at least a few weeks. Thus, as soon as it starts, the relaxation reflex will be activated. Eventually, with any luck, you won’t even hear anything after the first few minutes.

Read here for more examples: 20 Best Guided Sleep Meditations to Help Insomnia

Final thoughts

A compassionate understanding of your nighttime restlessness can help you reset your mental habits and take full advantage of the many wonderful sleep meditations. Your usual immediate recourse reflex to the busy thinking mind can be replaced with a relaxation reflex that will help you rest and recover as nature intended.

Credit for featured photo: Polina Kovaleva via

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