Mindfulness: 5 Tips for Practice Success

Mindfulness meditation seems to be everywhere these days, and for good reason.  Its practice has been scientifically shown to be beneficial for improving mental health, reducing depression recurrence, managing chronic illness, and addressing insomnia.  Neuroimaging studies are beginning to uncover the effects of mindfulness on neural activity.

Contrary to a popular misconception that emptying your mind and getting rid of thoughts is the cornerstone of success or doing it "right," mindfulness involves training the mind to attend to the present moment with a non-judgmental attitude of openness, acceptance, and curiosity.

The following are five simple tips to get you started with your mindfulness practice:

1. Opt for guided practice initially.  As with any new skill, having someone guide you through the practice initially will be invaluable, as it will provide pacing and structure for the practice.  Guidance might be from a therapist who offers individual or group training, or from online sources.  The appropriately named, Franticworld.com, and Headspace.com, are good, free sites to start with.  Franticworld features downloadable MP3 files both for general mindfulness practice and for applying mindfulness to coping with health conditions.  Headspace offers a 10-module crash course in mindfulness practice with clever animations and videos to illustrate key mindfulness concepts.

2. Allow the mind to wander.  The truth is, your mind will wander.  Your mind wanders throughout the day and it will wander during mindfulness practice.  There really is no way around it.  Trying to control the wandering mind or expecting otherwise is a recipe for frustration and disappointment.  Regarding mind wandering: Expect it, accept it, notice it, then redirect your mind back to being mindful of whatever you are being mindful of, such as your breath or body sensations.   Noticing when your mind as it wanders and redirecting it to present experience is an important mindfulness skill thought to be central to managing mood.

3. Practice first thing in the morning.  Think about your current morning routine and how it sets the stage for the day for you, mentally and emotionally.  Does your current routine reinforce or encourage a mentally and emotionally grounded approach to the day? Or, does it engender franticness, dread, and stress?  The nice thing about practicing mindfulness first thing in the morning is that you can settle your mind and bring a sense of centred awareness into your daily activities.

4. Practice in the evening.  Mindfulness practice at the end of the day can be an effective way to calm the mind and settle the self emotionally and physically.  This can be part of an evening wind-down routine that can promote separation or distance from the events of the day, which can also be beneficial for sleep (For additional ideas on how to sleep better, click here and here).       

5. Keep an eye on judgment.  A frequent question that may arise during mindfulness practice is whether you are doing it "right."  Or you might ask if mindfulness is "working" or why it is that you cannot seem to settle your mind? Such questions are natural but shift your mind from being open and observing of your present experience to being judgmental or evaluative of your experience which is counter to the core intent of mindfulness.  When these types of questions or thoughts arise, notice and label it as "judgment or evaluation" and redirect your mind to practicing mindful awareness.          

Stay tuned for my next blog post, which will include tips for mindful living.

Light, Screen Time and Bedtime

image courtesy of  KROMKRATHOG

image courtesy of KROMKRATHOG

I often advise clients who have difficulty sleeping to be mindful of their levels of light exposure throughout the day.  The reason is that our bodies have an internal circadian biological clock, which responds to light exposure, that regulates sleep and alertness throughout the day.

When light enters our eyes, specialized cells (i.e., suprachiasmic nucleus) in the brain send signals to orchestrate changes that lead to wakefulness, such as increase in body temperature, cortisol release, and delaying release of a hormone called melatonin, which is involved in promoting sleep onset.

Hence, to promote wakefulness, it is a good idea to get exposed to light, ideally natural light, first thing in the morning and during the day (even on a cloudy Vancouver day).  In the early evening, to encourage sleepiness and melatonin release, limit light exposure by turning off or dimming lights and limiting screen time from devices such as computers, tablets and smart phones.  Blue light emitted from these devices can be especially disruptive to sleep.

Recent research suggests that pre-bedtime screen time, compared to reading a printed book, is associated with reduced sleepiness, suppressed melatonin levels, and decreased alertness the next morning (even after sleeping eight hours).

For other ideas on how to sleep better, see my other blog posts on sleep strategies and CBT for Insomnia.


Strategies for Improving Sleep

Image courtesy of  Feelart

Image courtesy of Feelart

In my previous post, insomnia and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I), a non-medication based therapy, for insomnia were discussed.  Drawing from the CBT-I approach, here are some behavioural strategies for improving sleep:

1. Establish a regular sleep routine and stick to it, even on the weekends and while on vacation.  Sleeping in on the weekends or during vacation can delay sleep onset on Sunday evening as it disrupts our circadian rhythm, a 24 hour biological cycle influenced by light and temperature, which regulates sleeping and eating patterns.

2. Reserve your bedroom for sleep and intimacy only.  Refrain from mind activating, and thus sleep incompatible activities in the bedroom such as working, studying, reading, or watching tv.

3. Learn a relaxation strategy or practice meditation to help calm your mind and body in preparation for sleep.

4. Have a wind-down period 1-2 hours before bedtime. This is the time to take a shower or bath, floss and brush your teeth, change into your bed clothes, dim the lights, and unwind from the day's activities.

5. Limit caffeine and have your last cup of coffee or tea by mid-day.

Many factors can set the stage for and maintain insomnia - the ideas above need to be practiced consistently to be of benefit. For more information, consult a health professional familiar with CBT-I.

Getting a Good Night's Sleep, Without Medication

coco sleeping.JPG

Most of us know the difference between a good night's sleep and a poor one. Having an occasional sleepless night is not necessarily cause for concern. However, sleep troubles (e.g., difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep) that persist and cause distress and/or impair daily functioning may indicate insomnia, a clinical sleep disorder.

Insomnia is a chronic condition in about 50% of sufferers and is a risk factor for physical and mental health conditions (1). According to a Canadian Study of 2000 adults published in 2011, insomnia is prevalent: about 40% have trouble falling asleep or early morning awakenings three or more nights per week in the previous month, about 20% were dissatisfied with their sleep, and 13.4% met full criteria for insomnia (one symptom of insomnia plus distress or disruption to daily function as a result of the insomnia) (2).  Females, older adults, and individuals with poorer physical and mental health were more likely to report insomnia. Regarding treatments, 10% had used prescription medication in the past year to manage their sleep, 9% used natural remedies, about 6% used over the counter products, and about 5% used alcohol (2).

Concerns about psychological dependency on sleep medication to fall asleep is an often cited reason for not wanting to start a sleep medication.  For individuals who are not keen on taking sleep medication to manage their insomnia, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for Insomnia (CBT-I) is an excellent alternative.  CBT-I has been shown to be effective for improving sleep and it has been shown to reduce healthcare visits and costs (3).  In CBT-I, patients work with a trained therapist to build awareness of their sleep patterns and behaviours, learn to eliminate sleep disruptive behaviours and activities (e.g., watching tv in bed, not keeping a regular sleep schedule, worrying in bed), and implement sleep promoting behaviours (e.g., regular exercise, learning strategies to manage worries, re-establishing a regular sleep routine).

For further information about CBT-I, consult a trained health professional.  NPR also published a short health blog article last week on CBT-I: