You can’t make yourself fall asleep. It’s not a matter of will power or force; that just doesn’t work. Why not? Because the more you bully yourself to go to sleep already, the more your body and mind rebel.
In her new book, our own Catherine Polan Orzech, M.A., LMFT, writes about how to stop this war in its tracks by using mindfulness techniques to develop self-compassion. People with insomnia know to create an external environment that helps them sleep – a dark, quiet and cool bedroom, for example.
But addressing your internal environment is just as important. You can allow natural sleep to come by working mindfully and compassionately with your mind and body.
Why does mindfulness work?
This is work that has to happen during the day as well as when you’re lying in bed. Developing mindfulness and self-compassion throughout the day teaches you to adopt a more gentle and kind way of relating to your inner self. If you suffer from insomnia, mindfulness helps you be more accepting of your experience when you have difficulty sleeping. It may seem paradoxical, but this willingness to accept the experience of poor sleep can lead to less anxiety and better rest.
This gentle training in encountering life in this way is like stopping a war – the exhausting war with life that we all wage by unconsciously grasping and resisting, trying to make things different than they are. This war is waged in our own minds and bodies, and it wreaks havoc on our well-being – including on our ability to sleep. Each time your mind creates catastrophic stories about the future because of how frustrated you are about not sleeping, you are continuing this internal war. The brain interprets this train of thinking as a threat and reactivates the stress response.
To really rest, we need to feel safe and at peace. Humans are programmed that way: our ancestors survived because they kept one eye open for saber-toothed tigers. Mindfulness and self-compassion practice can give us that experience of peace because it’s a peace that does not depend on an absence of difficulty. We can learn to encounter ourselves, encounter our lives, with acceptance and compassion, and in doing so, bring about the conditions where we can let go into rest.
A mindfulness practice is all about non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. You might use more formal meditation techniques, or you might simply choose to focus on your breath or the smell and sound of your coffee brewing.
Use your senses as a portal into the present moment and have both curiosity and kindness, as though you’re greeting a dear friend. If your mind wanders – and it will – don’t judge yourself. Just notice what has happened and bring your attention back to the present.
This is a technique you can use throughout the day to practice being compassionate towards yourself. Try spending ten minutes on mindfulness a few times throughout the day to practice shifting your mind into a relaxed and accepting state.