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Five psychological techniques for improving sleep quality

Do you get enough sleep each night? Dr William Van Gordon, Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology at the University of Derby, discusses techniques to help improve the quality of your sleep at night.

By Dr William Van Gordon - 25 October 2019

There is growing awareness of the importance of a good night's sleep, including how poor sleep quality can lead to, for example, mental health issues, reduced work productivity, intensification of pain conditions, and poor quality of life. Part of a programme of research I'm conducting focusses on assessing the impact of contemplative psychology techniques on sleep quality. The research has made use of a psychological instrument called the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index, which in addition to other sleep health criteria, evaluates whether people can get to sleep within 30 minutes of going to bed, need to take medicine to help them sleep, experience daytime fatigue, and have bad dreams. Several studies have already been published, showing that an evidence-based contemplative psychology intervention I developed, called Meditation Awareness Training, led to a 20% improvement in sleep quality for individuals suffering from a chronic pain condition, 43% improvement for individuals suffering from sex addiction, and 50% improvement for individuals suffering from work addiction.

Another study I published last year showed that following training in a similar type of contemplative psychology intervention, middle-aged women suffering from a chronic pain condition demonstrated a 30% improvement in sleep quality, 23% improvement in subjective insomnia, 22% improvement in sleep impairment, and 20% improvement in daytime sleepiness. In each of the aforementioned studies, improvements in sleep quality were maintained during a follow-up assessment that took place several months after the intervention finished.

The following five tips are adapted from the Meditation Awareness Training intervention and are specifically intended to help foster a good night's sleep:

1. Understand the mind

A fire that rages by day will continue to smoulder at night. The mind works in much the same way such that a mind that is distressed or distracted during the day, will likely be over-active at night, making restorative sleep difficult to come by. Simply understanding this can help raise awareness of the importance of remaining calm throughout daily activities, as well as regularly taking time during the day to step-back, relax and re-centre the mind.

2. Label and let be

One or two hours before going to sleep, take 10 minutes to focus your attention inwards in order to identify what you deem to be your main problems or sources of worry. This is purely an acknowledging exercise whereby rather than seeking to understand or solve any problems, you simply recognise that the problem exists as a psychological weight you are carrying. You can give the problem a label such as health worry, legal problem, or work issue. After you have identified these sources of worry, allow them to simply be, at least until the morning when you can turn your attention to them again if you so wish. Labelling problems in this manner helps to objectify them, which in turn helps foster understanding that these issues or worries do not need to define you or constantly impact on your peace of mind. In other words, both the problem and worry it causes no doubt exist, but since they exist as observable objects or feelings, you are separate from them. You are perfectly free and entitled to deal with these problems as best as you can, one step at a time, and on your own terms. This includes taking a break from them and leaving them be so that you can enjoy a good night's sleep.

3. Breathe yourself to sleep

In addition to keeping the mind calm and taking care of it throughout the day, simply taking 5 minutes to follow the breath in and out immediately before going to sleep can help relax the mind. It's better to do this while sat upright on the side of the bed rather than when laying down, as the latter position tends to impair meditative awareness. Focus awareness on the natural flow of the in-breath and out-breath, and each time you notice your concentration has drifted away, gently bring your attention back to your breathing.

4. Don't become sleep obsessed

Everyone likes a good night's sleep but in reality, there will always be times when a few more hours of quality sleep would be welcome. In the event you can't get to sleep or wake-up too early, it's important to stay relaxed and not make too big a deal of it. Ruminating about not sleeping invariably induces apprehension and tension, further reducing the likelihood of going to sleep. If you can't get to sleep, enjoy simply resting in bed or give tip 3 a try before laying down again. Try to accept the fact that you will sleep when you sleep. Accept also the possibility that the next day, you might have to find an opportunity to take a nap or apply yourself a bit harder due to being tired. Being accepting and prepared for the scenario of a poor night's sleep somehow helps to remove anxious energy associated with the thought of not sleeping. This more relaxed disposition helps sleep to come more easily.

5. Wake up and be aware

Preparation for a good night's sleep should ideally start the moment you wake up. Instead of a drawn-out battle with the alarm snooze button, try to get up as soon as possible after the wake-up alarm has sounded (or shortly after waking up if you don't use an alarm). Gently remove the bedcovers and sit on the side of the bed before taking a few conscious breaths in and out. This is a new day of your life. Inhale and enjoy it. Proceed in a similar manner, being gentle and aware, as you go to the bathroom and perform your ablutions. Then make a hot drink and enjoy every sip of it. Waking up in this manner helps to prepare the mind for the day ahead, as well as prevent it from becoming over-active, which could have a negative impact when the time comes to sleep at the end of the day.

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About the author

Dr William Van Gordon

Dr William Van Gordon
Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology

Associate Professor in Contemplative Psychology, Dr William Van Gordon is a Chartered Psychologist and international expert in the research and practice of meditation and mindfulness.

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