Soften Into Better Sleep

It’s generally agreed that sleep medications are meant to be short-term solutions. Sleep experts recommend several environmental strategies to make your bedroom more conducive for slumber: Keep it dark, quiet, and cool (68 degrees is the commonly suggested temperature). It’s also advised that electronic devices be kept out of the bedroom, including televisions. All of these measures have been proven to help people fall asleep. But, what can you do when your inner space of mind and body are restlessly tossing and turning with endless thoughts and lingering to-do lists?

Creating Peace of Mind

Forcing yourself to do anything isn’t productive, according to longtime meditation instructor Natalie Bell, UCLA Mindfulness Research Center. “Striving or trying to force ourselves to relax and sleep is usually counterproductive, leads to frustration, and more insomnia. Instead, try a gentle approach.”

She recommends practicing mindful meditations regularly, even during the day, so you can develop a greater ability to relax when you need it most—at night. These can be as simple and as quick as taking a few slow, mindful breaths to decompress. Reducing stress and enjoying life more throughout the day can help reduce worry and ruminations that keep so many people awake at night. Soften is an operative word in Bell’s sleep strategy toolbox. Below she offers several ways to release tension in body and mind.

Calm Your Mind and Relax Your Body

First, know that calming a rushing, busy mind is just a normal part of preparing to sleep. You just need a way to recognize what’s happening and have a process to ease the internal chatter. Though designed here to usher in sleep, the following methods can be practiced any time you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Follow the calming breath. When you lie down, gently close your eyes and take three deep relaxing breaths. Breathe in deeply to let your chest and belly expand, and then exhale to release tension. After the third intentional breath, continue breathing normally without concern if it’s deep or shallow. As you follow the rhythm of breathing in and out, try adding a short phrase like, “Breathing in I invite calm, and breathing out I release tension and relax.” If your mind wanders off, just return to the flow of your breath and the gentle reminder: “Breathing in…calm, breathing out…releasing”.

The compassionate body scan. In this three-part practice, the idea is to check in by fully acknowledging how you are and to try to relax around your experience. Each part builds into the next. Sleep may come during any of them.

Body awareness. Scan your body from head to toe, allowing yourself to relax wherever you notice tension. Start slowly by becoming aware of the top of your head. Continue by noticing your forehead, eyes, mouth, jaw, neck, shoulders, chest, belly and on down to your legs and feet. Stop anywhere you feel tension and allow it to slowly release. A few easy breaths can help. Soften in your body throughout your scan.

Acknowledge feelings. Shift your awareness to your heart to notice how you’re feeling. See if you can identify any emotions, moods, or attitudes. You might ask yourself, “How am I doing?” Give yourself room to acknowledge whatever the feelings may be. Invite a nurturing attitude, allowing yourself to be just as you are. Emotions are often fluid and will shift as you acknowledge them. Soften around your experience, relaxing in your body wherever you can.

Awareness of thoughts. Notice what inner dialogue might be present. Name and validate your experience. If your mind is busy, you might say “busy mind.” If you keep worrying about something, you might say, “worry.” Offer yourself a compassionate response by acknowledging, “I’m just worried, it’s ok. Everyone worries. I can make time for this tomorrow.” Come back to your body to gently scan and relax from head to toe.

Accepting the Experience

“In these practices we are learning to relax into our experience, even if the mind is busy,” explains Bell. “Softening around what’s happening, including mental activity, allows our body to relax and creates a sense of acceptance and allowing versus clinging or reacting. This helps the mind to relax without force and helps us to fall asleep.”

Developing a Regular Practice

Bell ( offers a regular series of mindful awareness classes (called MAPs) at the UCLA Mindfulness Research Center. The classes provide a foundation for learning and practicing the principles of mindfulness that can be practiced anywhere, anytime. Some classes are available online.

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