Research suggests that practicing gratitude, forgiveness, mindfulness, and self-compassion may improve our sleep during stressful times.
A lot of us are suffering from lack of sleep these days. According the Centers for Disease Control, about 35% of adult Americans regularly get less than seven hours of sleep per night, with African Americans and other minority groups sleeping even less than that.
With the pandemic still in full swing, we may have even more sleep problems than usual. Worries about our health and safety, jobs, kids’ disrupted education, and more are keeping many of us up at night, creating fatigue and stress the next day. This could also lead to more serious mental health issues, like depression and even suicide.
Improving “sleep hygiene” is a good remedy—including going to bed at the same time every night, making sure your room is dark and quiet at bedtime, forgoing afternoon caffeine, and creating sleep-time rituals (like putting on cozy pajamas and reading a book before bed). But many people still suffer from sleep problems even after making these adjustments. And, though turning to sleeping pills can be effective, they can also be addictive, or they can disrupt our dreaming, which leads to lower-quality sleep.
Fortunately, there may be other things worth trying to help us sleep that have more to do with our minds than our bodies. Recent research suggests that many of the well-being practices we can do to be happier also have a positive effect on sleep. Here are some of those practices.
A recent analysis of several high-quality studies (randomized controlled trials) concluded that mindfulness meditation programs help people fall asleep more easily and experience better-quality sleep overall.
One study conducted in Wuhan, China, actually looked at how mindfulness might be useful for sleeping better during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the study, people spent 10 days using an app that either guided them through mindfulness meditation or induced mind-wandering (unfocused attention). They then reported how mindful they were and how much sleep they got the next day.
After taking into account other factors influencing sleep (like how much caffeine people drank, their age, or prior anxiety levels), the researchers analyzed how long people slept as the virus spread and deaths proliferated in their community. Those who practiced mindfulness and became more mindful didn’t lose as much sleep as those in the other group, likely because mindfulness protected them some from worry and rumination. Mindfulness helps people recognize and accept negative thoughts and feelings without fighting them, reducing their intensity and preventing them from spiraling out of control.
If you’ve not already tried mindfulness meditation, you can find many online resources to give it a go—including apps, which seem to be at least somewhat effective. You can also go to Greater Good in Action and try our practices—including a body scan, mindful breathing, or common humanity meditation. These exercises, besides potentially helping with sleep, have been found to reduce stress and depression and increase happiness and satisfaction with life, too.
Self-compassion is something all of us could use right now, especially as lockdowns drag on and we find ourselves feeling more tired, unhappy, and unproductive than usual. Getting down on ourselves for perceived mistakes and flaws could exacerbate low-grade depression, which many of us already feel.
Self-compassion helps us to be kinder to ourselves as we go through the ups and downs of life. According to researcher Kristin Neff, self-compassion involves paying attention to our internal and external experiences (mindfulness), recognizing when we are suffering and sending kind messages to ourselves, and keeping in mind our common humanity—that we are not alone in our imperfections or suffering.
Studies have found that more self-compassionate people have better sleep, including less trouble falling asleep after a stressful day. In that study, people who were more self-compassionate were also in a better mood and felt more alert upon awakening than those with little self-compassion.
Self-compassion can be strengthened with practice, and that improves sleep, too. In one study, participants were asked to think about personal mistakes they’d made before going to bed and assigned to do a self-compassion meditation, a self-compassion writing exercise, or neither of those (as a comparison). Based on their reports the next morning, those who did a self-compassion exercise slept significantly better and ruminated less than those who didn’t try self-compassion. These practices even helped people who started out more depressed, which is good to know, given how many of us are ruminating more these days.
A new paper analyzing the results of several studies found there was “a significant association between self-compassion and self-reported sleep quality.” Though more rigorous studies could be done to confirm this, we can always benefit from practices like writing ourselves a self-compassion letter or taking a self-compassion break.
Feeling grateful is a good way to feel happier and strengthen our relationships. Now, it appears to help with sleep, too.
In one study, 119 young women were randomly selected to write about people and things they were grateful for each day, things that happened each day, or nothing at all. After two weeks, people’s sleep quality improved significantly in the gratitude group, and this helped improve their well-being and optimism and reduce blood pressure, too. In a recent review of gratitude exercises and their effects on physical health, researchers found that one of the strongest impacts of gratitude was on sleep quality.
One reason gratitude may affect sleep is that a grateful mindset seems to help us embrace more positive thoughts and let go of more negative ones before we go to bed. This means that it doesn’t take as long for us to fall asleep at night.
To try gratitude practices yourself, you might consider keeping a gratitude journal (or use the GGSC’s Thnx4 online journal) or writing a gratitude letter. These are designed to increase your positive thoughts and feelings, which may be key to better sleep.
For some people, forgiving others is hard—especially if you equate forgiveness with letting someone “off the hook” and condoning their harmful actions. But those who study forgiveness consider it to be not necessarily about healing relationships between people, but mostly important for ourselves, helping us to let go of grudges that decrease our personal well-being.
If what’s keeping you up at night is holding on to grudges—pandemic-related or not—it could be worth considering practicing forgiveness. Though there is little or no direct research on how forgiving someone affects sleep directly, there is at least one study that found forgiving types were more likely to sleep better at night than others. Additionally, those who were more self-forgiving in the study also slept better because they were able to let go of mistakes they’d made more easily.
Forgiving someone can make us feel happier, more hopeful, less depressed and anxious, and less vulnerable to stress. And it can improve our relationships with others, especially our closest ones, which is important when so many of us have limited ability to interact with others right now. Each of these benefits is also tied to better sleep, which is all the more reason to try practicing forgiveness.
The nice thing about all of these practices is that they can be used alone or in tandem, and they don’t have undesirable side effects. Not only that, practicing these keys to happiness can have the desirable side effect of helping you become a happier, healthier person. That’s something we can all cheer about in these dark times. Just don’t try cheering right before you want to fall asleep!
This article originally appeared on Greater Good, the online magazine of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Reprinted with permission.