Mca blog

How Well Do You Sleep?

Everyone with a mind capable of thought has had a bad night’s sleep at some time. Everyone has also experienced waking up refreshed and rested. So why can’t we have this all the time?

Sleep accounts for a quarter to a third of your life. It is both a natural and a learned process. 

It’s natural because we’re born with it. You don’t need to teach a newborn baby how to sleep. When it’s tired it just switches off and sleeps. If you’ve ever tried to keep a new baby awake when it’s tired, you’ll know how difficult this can be.

Sleep is also learned because the steps needed to turn the brain off can conflict with the brain’s need to produce thoughts. In fact, the brain’s “default network” (what it does when there’s nothing else to do) is one of mind wandering. So, as we grow and become aware of our surroundings, we can resist the urge to fall asleep. Even when there’s nothing to stimulate us and nothing to worry about, the default network of mind wandering can feel pleasant, so we lie there thinking about whatever comes to mind, to the detriment of our sleep.

The brain is a thinking organ. Just as the lungs must breathe, can’t help but breathe, the brain must think. Thought is how we understand and interact with the world. It’s how we understand the present, learn from the past and plan the future. Just like breath, it’s essential for our survival. And that’s fine when you’re awake but can be troublesome when you try to sleep.

Like breath, sleep is also essential to our survival. Numerous fundamental physiological functions take place when we sleep. Here are just a few:

  • Stress hormones such as cortisol, decrease and hormones that help you rest increase
  • The sympathetic nervous system, the body’s fight-flight mechanism, chills out, allowing your blood pressure to normalise and improving the health of your cardiovascular system
  • Sleep promotes healing, releasing hormones that encourage tissue repair, helping wounds to heal faster and sore or damaged muscle tissue to mend.
  • Your immune system releases proteins (cytokines) that help to fight inflammation, infection and trauma, so you can restore good health while you sleep
  • Hunger hormones (ghrelin) are reduced and hormones that make you feel full (leptin) go up. This is why you may feel hungrier after a poor night’s sleep than a restful one
  • Dreaming helps us to sort out, and make sense of the day’s information and to create long term memories
  • Good sleep helps us to “reboot”, restoring the body and mind’s stress and energy closer to optimum, and boosting positive mood

The good news is that just as we can deliberately slow down our breath, we can also learn to slow down our thoughts. How do we do this?

The best way to learn about your mind is to observe it. Anything you choose to learn about requires that you pay attention to it. It’s the same with your mind.

When we practice mindfulness or any other form of meditation, we’re not doing nothing or navel-gazing. We’re observing what happens in the mind whilst maintain focus on just one thing (usually the breath). That’s not the same as thinking. Just because we become aware of a thought, it doesn’t mean you have to actively go off with it. Instead, when we’re aware of a thought or a sensation we note it, we observe it, and then we return the attention to our point of focus, the breath.

What does this do? It trains the brain to

  • Become aware of thoughts as opposed to thinking them
  • Choose between thinking and focusing
  • Move away from the default network (mind wandering) to a deliberate one where you choose what you pay attention to

In addition, studies show that most of the processes I listed above as outcomes of good sleep, are also outcomes of regular meditation.

How does this help you sleep when your mind won’t stop thinking?

When you’ve decided it’s time to sleep but you let your mind wander wherever it wants, it’s no different to a child who keeps getting out of bed for another glass of water. Meditation teaches us to let thought go, and learning to let thoughts go allows you to slow down the thoughts and clear your mind when you want to sleep.

This is not a quick fix. It’s not a sleeping tablet. But, as with any new skill, if you learn the process and practice it regularly you can train your brain to relax and quiet down when you want to sleep.

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