The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have called insufficient sleep a public health epidemic linked to car crashes, industrial disasters and medical errors, as well as chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, obesity and cancer — not to mention reduced quality of life and productivity.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, insufficient sleep even affects your fiscal health.
What if I told you there’s a simple, cost-free activity you can do at home that might reduce insomnia, fatigue and depression? That’s what Harvard Medical School is saying.
They call the practice “mindfulness meditation” and describe it as “a mind-calming practice that focuses on breathing and awareness of the present moment.”
In a study of 49 middle-age and older adults with trouble sleeping, those who completed a mindfulness awareness program experienced less insomnia, fatigue and depression than those who completed a sleep education class. The study was published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Both groups of participants met for the same duration of time and with the same frequency over a six-week period. But the former group was taught practices such as meditation to help them focus on “moment-by-moment experiences, thoughts, and emotions,” while the latter group was taught ways to improve their sleep habits.
One thing that separates the two teachings is that mindfulness meditation triggers what Herbert Benson, M.D., director emeritus of the Harvard-affiliated Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, calls “the relaxation response.” This deep physiological shift in the body is the opposite of the stress response and can help ease stress-related ailments such as depression, pain and high blood pressure.
Last year, a study published in Sleep concluded that mindfulness meditation “appears to be a viable treatment option for adults with chronic insomnia and could provide an alternative to traditional treatments for insomnia.”
Here’s how Harvard describes a simple method for eliciting the relaxation response:
“Step 1: Choose a calming focus. Good examples are your breath, a sound (‘Om’), a short prayer, a positive word (such as ‘relax’ or peace’) or a phrase (‘breathing in calm, breathing out tension’; ‘I am relaxed’). If you choose a sound, repeat it aloud or silently as you inhale or exhale.
Step 2: Let go and relax. Don’t worry about how you’re doing. When you notice your mind has wandered, simply take a deep breath or say to yourself ‘thinking, thinking’ and gently return your attention to your chosen focus.”