Insomnia – the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep – affects roughly 30% of the U.S. population, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). As a holistic Buddhist psychotherapist, I assess all aspects of mind-body wellness, including diet, exercise, and sleep. Sleep is absolutely critical to our mental health and sense of well-being; anyone who has struggled with insomnia or sleep disruption knows that lack of sleep strongly influences our moods, resulting in irritability, inability to focus and depression, among others.
For many of us, trouble sleeping relates to overactive minds. We lie down to go to sleep and find that our thoughts are racing and obsessive, and we can’t seem to let go of the mind chatter. We find ourselves caught in a constant state of stress, or what Buddhist psychologist Tara Brach calls a “limbic hijack”.
So what therapy techniques exist to help with this problem? First, it is important to have proper sleep hygiene. Sleep hygiene is the set of practices or habits that we engage in prior to falling asleep (in the hour or so beforehand) that promote restful, healthy sleep. The National Sleep Foundation has a list of suggested practices, some of which include turning off all “blue light” technology at least 30 minutes before bedtime; stopping all intake of food and beverages (other than water) at least 30 minutes prior to bedtime; and ensuring that daytime naps are limited to 30 minutes or less.
From an eastern, homeopathic perspective, ayurvedic medicine also lays out certain practices that promote healthy sleep, including self-massage, drinking certain calming teas (such as chamomile and valerian root) and taking herbs. Aromatherapy is also helpful for relaxation: lavender is especially beneficial for calming the mind.
As for Buddhist psychology, insomnia is extremely relevant to the teachings of Buddhist psychotherapy focused on the mind and thought. If racing thoughts and an overactive mind is largely responsible for your sleep disruption, try a practice of deep breathing or meditation prior to bedtime. When we learn how to detach from our thoughts, we are no longer at their mercy; we get to choose whether or not we “follow them down the rabbit hole” or simply observe them like clouds passing in the sky.
So the next time you find yourself struggling to fall asleep, try some of the tips and techniques mentioned above and hopefully you’ll catch more ZZZ’s!