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Restless sleep

For some, sleep comes almost as soon as their head hits the pillow. For others, the journey into dreamland isn’t quite so seamless. If you struggle to stay asleep throughout the night or if it takes hours of tossing and turning to get you there, you may be experiencing restless sleep — a common obstacle that can often be overcome with the right lifestyle and bedtime rituals.

In theory, it’s easy to understand the importance of a good night’s sleep: resting well can drastically improve memory, energy, and mood — we know this from experience. In reality, achieving 8 uninterrupted hours of sleep often proves to be a surprisingly difficult task. From the constant stimulation and distractions on your phone to the frequent overflow of daily stress into our nighttime routines, restless sleep can happen to the best of us.

So if you’re trying to figure out how to stop tossing and turning at night, there are a number of rituals and mindfulness techniques that may help you find ways to fall asleep faster — and stay asleep longer.

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How do I prevent a night of restless sleep?

Key takeaways:

  • Understand the difference between restless sleep and active sleep

  • Why you may be experiencing a restless night

  • How meditation can help you settle your thoughts and sleep soundly

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What is restless sleep?

A night of restless sleep may mean something different to everyone. The common PM plight may mean that you often spend hours lying in bed before finally drifting off. Or maybe you fall asleep just fine but struggle to stay asleep, waking up frequently throughout the night. In many cases, it’s a combination of both scenarios.

While a restless night does suggest sleep with movement, it’s important to note that being an active sleeper doesn’t necessarily mean you are a restless sleeper. In 2019, a team of doctors from Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine published a study that used scientific findings to bust the myth that “a sound sleeper rarely moves at night.” Instead, they found occasional movement to be a normal part of healthy sleep.

Restless sleep is less about the movements you make while you’re in a restorative sleep state and more about the difficulty of getting to (and staying in) that state in the first place.

Restless sleep causes

If you’re trying to figure out how to stop tossing and turning, begin by doing an audit of your sleep hygiene. These are daytime and nighttime habits that can promote healthier sleep. Poor sleep hygiene like using your phone before bed, eating your last meal of the day just before you lie down, or not getting enough daily exercise may be contributing to why you’re experiencing restless sleep.

In a YouTube sleep Q&A, Headspace co-founder Andy Puddicombe shares one simple practice that can help prepare the body for sleep: “Try taking either a warm bath or shower about 20 minutes to a half-hour before you go to bed,” he says. While this can certainly be a relaxing ritual, it’s also one that’s backed by science. Studies have shown that strategically raising, then cooling your body temperature sends signals to the brain that it’s time to sleep.

If your tendency to sleep restlessly often triggers an anxious mind or stressful thoughts come bedtime, Andy also suggests trying to remember that sleep isn’t a one-size-fits-all scenario. Fixating on achieving the "perfect night’s sleep" may actually be what’s preventing you from sleeping soundly in the first place.

"Move away from this idea of going to bed and getting to sleep as quickly as possible,” he says. "You might be in bed with your eyes closed for a while, but not sleeping. That can still be restful if we know what to do with the mind.”

Meditation for restful sleep

You can address the physical bedroom environment, and take all the necessary steps to facilitate a good night’s sleep, but one of the most important factors to address is your mind — the mind that creates all those racing thoughts that keep you awake.

Settle the mind, and you have a much better prospect of settling the body, which in turn, increases your prospects of a restful night’s sleep … and that’s where meditation can help.

Through meditation, you learn to observe and let go of your thoughts, rather than get entangled with them. Instead of getting lost in stressful or anxious thoughts once your head hits the pillow, you learn to step away from distractions and focus your attention on your breath, keeping you in the moment, which gradually has a calming effect. A case study conducted by Oxford University actually found that two months of using the Headspace app can decrease anxiety symptoms by 31%.

In addition to meditation, the tranquil sounds of white noise, relaxing music, or a sleepcast* may also help to anchor a wandering mind while still allowing it to transition into a sleep state.

Dealing with frequent or occasional bouts of restless sleep can be a frustrating and exhausting experience, but once you examine the potential underlying causes, amend your sleep hygiene habits, and incorporate mindful practices into your nightly routine, you may find that a night of restorative, undisturbed rest isn’t so elusive after all.

*only available to Headspace Plus subscribers

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