100+ Breaths: Another Back-to-Sleep Option

Another stressful night left me wide awake at 3am again. Not fun when you’ve got a long day of work ahead of you.

I went to my tried-and-true tactic: several guided meditations which usually work to take the place of the worries swirling in my noggin. But this time it wasn’t enough. The voices were soothing but I wasn’t close to falling asleep.

So I came up with a simple impromptu meditation that kinda-sorta breaks the mindfulness “rules”.

So many numbers out there for me to count while I’m not sleeping…

I’ve been taught that one can count the breaths to help deal with the chattering “Monkey Mind”, and this can be done in various ways. For example, count each inhale as one and each exhale as two, repeating with the next inhale as one and exhale as two, and so on, never progressing further.

Or counting each breath cycle up to 10 (or any other preset number) and then start again at one. If your focus is lost at any point, start at one again, working your way back to 10, restarting at one if your mind wanders off again.

These types of counting techniques aren’t meant to get you anywhere. The number you reach doesn’t matter. What matters is that you make the breath counts your point of focus, giving the Monkey Mind something to do and keeping anxious thoughts at bay.

But for this particular 3am waking, I decided to try something else: count breaths without a stopping point. Instead of observing the breath without changing it, as is usually done during other mindfulness meditation practices, I counted during the exhale, consciously extending the breath as I thought the number. And as I focused on my breath, I kept track of the ascending numbers. This required a touch more concentration and yet was simple and boring enough to not excite my mind.

Inhale, exhale, eighty-six…inhale, exhale, eighty-seven…inhale, exhale, eighty-z-z-z-z-z-z-z…

Somewhere in the 70s and 80s the numbers started jumbling in my head and I repeated several, not being sure exactly where I was. By the 90s, my monkey brain was muttering. I remember getting to 100 and going past it, but my memory is foggy. Consciousness faded in the one hundred teens, I think.

As far as back-to-sleep methods go, this was not a quick fix, but I was too awake to try anything else. I counted for a good 20-30 minutes. I manipulated the breath, so as I mentioned, this practice didn’t follow the mindfulness meditation “rules”, although it did offer me meditation practice in lieu of spinning my worry wheels.

But in the wee hours of the morning when nothing else seemed to be working, it got me to where I needed to be: asleep.

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When the going gets tough, I’ve found counting to be one of the most effective last-ditch back-to-sleep methods, for me preferable to getting out of bed and going out to the couch to read or something. If nothing else, I get in some effective meditation practice. Additionally, this was not a night with a totally hyperactive Monkey Mind. My monkey was awake for distractible.

Note that as I was doing this, I lay on my side, bolster between my knees, white noise playing through my earbuds (yes, I’ve taken to sleeping with earbuds in!). I was in “sleep position” and keeping still, so the only “moving parts” were my brain and the expansion and contraction of my chest and belly.

Counting Backwards to Sleep

I’m still experiencing weird sleep disruptions. Many nights I’ll be up for an extended time during the wee hours of the morning.

This isn’t conducive to being bright and alert during the day, so I’m devising a game plan for limiting the length of these nighttime interruptions.

My newest strategy is a variant of a counting practice that I heard over the radio years ago, and it goes like this:

Imagine a clean whiteboard. In one hand you’re holding a dry-erase marker in your favorite color, in the other a cloth or eraser.

Your imaginary nighttime whiteboard won’t have a reflection like mine, but you get the idea. The numbers are familiar but you might need to think a bit about how to form them in reverse.

Write “100” in large numbers, but do it backwards so it looks like a mirror image. Channel your inner da Vinci. 🙂

Your board may be brighter and the numbers more perfect than mine. Perhaps you’ll choose a different color. All that matters is that you focus on forming the numbers in reverse.

Then erase the number and write “99”, again reversed. Erase it again.

Keep counting down. Don’t rush. Think about how your hand should move to scribe the backwards numbers. Breathe deeply. When you erase, erase carefully and completely.

As you count down, don’t breeze past the erasure. Make sure you allow your imagination to clean off all markings of the previous numbers before you start writing the next ones.

You probably won’t get to zero. The first two nights I did this, I didn’t make it past 80. It doesn’t always work so well, but when it does, it’s soothing and sleep-inducing.

Why does it put you to sleep? First, you’re not doing anything very complex and therefore this shouldn’t be putting you into a greater state of wakefulness; in fact, counting down is kind of boring. You’re giving your full focus to this task so there are fewer opportunities for intrusive thoughts to interrupt. If they do, return your focus to the numbers. Do this each time your mind wanders. And while the task is easy enough, it does require you to pause and consider how to move your hand, since you’re doing the opposite of what you usually do to write a number.

The counting task requires enough attention that you shift your focus away from thoughts that may be keeping you up, but is gentle enough to lull you into a calmer state that helps bring on sleep.

If imagining a whiteboard doesn’t work for you in the middle of the night, there are other counting variations that would work as well:

Starting from 100, simply count backwards by threes (no imaginary writing required). If 100 seems too optimistically small a number from which to start, use 300 or even 1000. If counting down by threes seems too complex, try twos. Go slow.

Really good at addition? Try calculating the Fibonacci Sequence, a series of numbers where the next number is the sum of the two preceeding it. Start from zero, add one and then keep going: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34… unfortunately, this can get out of control quickly (I usually lose track somewhere in the three-digit numbers). But intrepid math fans might be able to get far enough to refocus themselves to the present and enter a calmer state.

Does the idea of math cause you stress? Then just count your breaths, start from 100 and going backwards, slowing down the breathing as you go, imagining the numbers count down with each inhale. This works particularly well if you focus on releasing all your muscles with each exhale.

A specific strategy may not work every time, but the overall idea is the same: something that requires a little brain focus with minimal excitation or strain (so that you can lazily shift your focus and keep your mind gently occupied). Do not rush through these; the magic lies in the process. There is nothing to achieve here. You’re simply boring yourself to sleep.

Try any of these the next time you find yourself awake with a racing mind and let me know how it goes.

Falling Back Asleep: Nighttime Relief

As calm as I may be during the waking hours, nightfall poses a unique challenge. How many of us have struggled in the darkness, surrounded by those scary thoughts that we thought we had dealt with during the day?

The darkness seems to make us more vulnerable to flying thought-gremlins. They creep in at night when our brains can’t reason them away. I’ve fought those little buggers for much of my life and they’ve been responsible for many hours of lost sleep. It wasn’t until I got serious about meditation that I developed means of protecting myself against them.

These are my best recommendations for returning to dreamland:

Drop into your bed. After waking to Dementor-esque anxieties circling you, realize that they’re flying, ephemeral creatures. And if you’re up there with them, it’s time to come back to Earth and settle into your bed. That is where you really are and you are safe. Focus on how it feels to have your body contact the bed, how the bedclothes feel against your skin. Rustle the sheets and listen to the sound. Take three deep breaths and listen to the exhales. You’re not “up there” with the swirling thoughts. You’re down here where it’s calm.

At times when there’s too much noise in my head, I will put a soothing voice in there from a meditation app like Calm, Plum Village or Insight Timer. Sometimes a guided meditation is enough to quiet the negative clamor.

Practicing stress release during the day will make it easier to do the same at night.

To support nighttime attempts at falling asleep, establish a sense of calm during the day. Practice being present — as opposed to chasing thoughts down rabbit holes. Pay attention to your reaction to various stimuli. Take conscious breaths, meditate, and use whatever tools work for you.

For instance, I have associated certain images with a calm state and I use them as anchors during the day (e.g., setting up a safe space). I have them pinned up by my bed and at work so that as I work to release stress I look at them, and as I look at them I release stress. The more I do this, the more powerful the association. I draw upon those images and feelings at times when things seem out of control. Practice during the day and you will have more peace at night.

Appreciate the nighttime wakening. Odd as it may seem, this can be a positive opportunity. Each such interruption allows you the chance to ground yourself and learn how to gently drop off to sleep. Stressing about being awake does you no favors and only adds to your wakefulness.

This doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad or frightening things actually happening in your life — sometimes there are and they can be very serious. I struggled with this when I got my cancer diagnosis. But at that moment in the middle of the night, lying in your bed, you have a temporary reprieve. Your only responsibility then and there is to go back to sleep. There’s nothing on fire.

Unless there really IS a fire, in which case, RUN. But most of the time, it’s just our fiery thoughts. And we can learn to douse those flames.

This will take practice – it’s not a one-time pill. But once you have done this enough times, you’ll find that not only is the relief wonderful, so is the knowledge that you are capable of determining how you react to things. That provides a satisfying sense of strength and a peaceful sense of control over what may seem like an out-of-control situation.