Mindfulness Exercises for Sleep After a Stressful Day

by Martin Reed Patient Advocate

Mindfulness is a meditative technique that can help reduce anxiety and stress and promote relaxation. It works by focusing attention on the present moment and acts as a reminder that thoughts and emotions are always subject to change. Mindfulness can be a particularly effective technique to try if you find your sleep is disrupted because you find it hard to unwind after work.

Scientist reading journal in lab.

Using mindfulness to aid recovery from work

In 2015, The British Psychological Society published a study that investigated the effect of mindfulness on sleep. 140 participants were involved in the study; 67 were given information about mindfulness along with instructions on how (and when) to perform mindfulness exercises. The remaining 73 individuals were put on a waiting list and served as the control group.

Person filling out daily survey.

The proven benefits of mindfulness

Study participants were instructed to answer brief daily surveys three times per day (in the morning, after work, and before bed) for 10 workdays. The study found that practicing mindfulness was associated with improvements in psychological detachment from work and a significant increase in both sleep quality and sleep duration over the 10-day intervention period.

Woman preparing to exercise.

Self-guided mindfulness for sleep

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this study is the fact that participants enjoyed significant sleep benefits from a self-administered course of mindfulness, and benefits were seen when mindfulness was practiced for just 10 minutes each day for two weeks. In the following slides, we’ll outline the mindfulness exercises used by participants in the study.

Man taking moment to breath, at work.

Mindfulness exercise 1: Three-minute breathing space

This exercise helps strengthen your focus on the present moment. Whenever you experience distracting or worrisome thoughts, set aside three minutes. Spend one minute bringing your attention inwards. Be aware of your thoughts, feelings, and any sensations you feel in your body. Spend another minute focusing on your breath, then spend a final minute expanding your awareness, from your breathing to your entire body. Guided breathing exercises can be found on YouTube.

Woman in bed, mindful.

Mindfulness exercise 2: Body scan

This is a great exercise to do when lying in bed and ready for sleep. It alternates between a wide focus of attention (your entire body) and a narrow focus (a specific part of your body). Start by focusing on your breathing, then shift attention to the top of your head. Reflect on any sensations you feel. Continue this process as you move down your body to your toes. The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center offers a free 13-minute body scan for sleep.

Mindfully making pancakes

Mindfulness exercise 3: The mindful routine activity

For this exercise, pick a routine activity and try to perform it in a more mindful way. For example, when making breakfast, instead of rushing through the routine without paying any attention to it, slow things down. Pay attention to each step of the process. If your mind wanders, guide it back to the task at hand.

Visualize love

Mindfulness exercise 4: Loving kindness

The goal of this exercise is to cultivate love and kindness to others and yourself. Start by focusing on your breath and bring your attention to the present. Next, use your mind to send loving and compassionate feelings and wishes to others or yourself. Vividly picture the feelings you are trying to send. In each exercise, focus on yourself, someone you have a positive relationship with, a neutral person, or someone you have a difficult relationship with.

Practice mindfulness daily reminder.

When and how to practice each routine

In the study, participants practiced the three-minute breathing exercise on the first evening of the 10-workday period. For the next nine workdays this exercise was practiced morning and night. The body scan was performed once in the evening of day one, and once in the evening of day 10. The mindful routine activity was performed every day — at any time — from day two through day 10.

Practicing loving mindfulness

The loving kindness routine

Loving kindness with a focus on self was performed in the evenings of day three and day four. Focus switched to a friend on the evenings of days five and six, switched to a neutral person on the evening of day seven, and switched to a disliked person on the evenings of days eight and nine.

Be here now mindfulness sign.

There are no hard and fast rules

The key to mindfulness is to bring your focus to the present. If you find it difficult at first, don’t beat yourself up. Acknowledge the challenge, and continue practicing. Mindfulness becomes more intuitive over time. As you become more confident in the techniques, you will find that your imagination can be a powerful tool when it comes to promoting relaxation and sleep.

Martin Reed
Meet Our Writer
Martin Reed

Martin is the creator of Insomnia Coach, an eight-week course that combines online sleep education with individual sleep coaching. His course helps clients improve their sleep so they can enjoy a better life with more energy and start each day feeling happy, healthy, rested, and refreshed. Martin also runs a free sleep training course that has helped over 5,000 insomniacs. He holds a master’s degree in health and wellness education and studied clinical sleep health at the University of Delaware.