The One Thing That Helped Me Overcome My Lifelong Battle With Insomnia

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Meditation pro Light Watkins’ new class A Meditation Expert’s 14-Day Guide to Creating a Daily Practice kicks off this week, so we’re taking a closer look at the transformative power of meditation and how it changes people’s lives for the better through personal stories. 

"I can't sleep."

I've uttered those three little words way too many times. As far back as I can remember, I was knocking on my parents' door at 3 a.m. to anxiously declare that I couldn't fall asleep. I was worried about monsters, I was anxious about school and my friends, and I was especially nervous about the minutes that marched on while sleep seemed to get further and further away.

As the years passed, the reasons for my sleeplessness started to change. Soon I was worrying about going to college, flunking finals, and eventually leaving my whole life behind in California to move to New York City. Once I got to New York, I was staying up until the early hours of the morning worrying about adult things like my job and money. Sometimes I seemed to be up for no reason at all, and the only thing I was worrying about—just like when I was a little kid—was the fact that morning kept getting closer, and I was nowhere near falling asleep.

I couldn't burst into my parents' room anymore, but I still wanted some acknowledgement that I couldn't sleep in those silent, lonely hours. I would roll over and, against the advice of sleep professionals, take out my phone to desperately fire off a few text messages to friends in hopes that they were awake and would respond to me.

Trust me, they never were.

I eventually had to face the fact that something had to change. I was anxious and massively exhausted. My days seemed to be controlled by how tired I was, but the second my head hit the pillow my mind would start racing with irrational worries.

So I decided to do some research.

Despite how alone I felt in my insomnia, the internet told me otherwise. In fact, according to the National Sleep Foundation, one in three people have at least "mild insomnia." I also found a ton of tips for getting better sleep—like avoiding blue light before bed (yep, that's exactly the kind of light our phones emit), cutting out caffeine, and getting out of bed when insomnia strikes—so I decided to give them a try.

Regardless of how perfect my sleep hygiene was every single night, my insomnia didn't get any better. And cutting out coffee didn't seem to do anything but make me miserable and grumpy.

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Finally, I started poking around the meditation space.

I have notoriously resisted meditation, and that's probably because I have such an anxious mind. Why would I want to sit alone with my own thoughts? I even skipped savasana for the first few years of my yoga practice, which as a devoted yogi is a pretty embarrassing thing for me to admit.

But there was so much interesting research about meditation. According to various studies, meditation eases anxiety, increases happiness, and helps you sleep. Since nothing else was working, I decided to explore meditation as a possible cure for my insomnia. I went to classes, used apps, did traditional seated meditations, and even meditated while I was running.

While meditating regularly seemed to make me more productive at work and generally less anxious, the sleepless nights persisted.

Then, I had an "aha" moment.

One afternoon while reading Thich Nhat Hanh's How to Relax, I came across this passage:

When you're in bed and unable to sleep, the best thing to do is to go back to your breathing. Resting is almost as beneficial as sleeping, and you'll know you're doing the best that you can. Bring peace to your breathing and your body so you can rest.

For some people, getting out of bed and reading a book for a few hours while sipping warm milk is what makes them finally fall asleep. For me, it was these words. They provided me the much needed comfort that "resting is almost beneficial as sleeping," which somehow made the sleepless hours of the early morning seem less scary. More importantly, this passage reminded me that I don't have to be sitting up straight to meditate. I can just lie in bed and breathe.

Now, whenever, I can't fall asleep, I simply lie there and meditate. I focus on my breath. And more often than not, I drift off to dreamland within a few minutes.

Don't get me wrong, my insomnia isn't gone. There are still nights when I'm so focused on my anxious thoughts that no amount of breathing will do the trick. But these days, those nights are few and far between. And that's everything.

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