Tired, But Wired? How Meditation Can Calm Your Mind - Interview with Susan Earl, Meditation Expert.
What do you do when you can’t face another night of tossing and turning? After googling ‘why can’t I sleep’ and reading 100 articles that tell you to ‘just relax’ or spray some lavender on your pillow – you’re ready to scream. Staring at the clock, not able to sleep can be a very lonely place.
Sleep is one of the most essential things to health – and yet more than 30% of people in the UK report getting a poor night sleep most nights. And unfortunately more than 1/3 (35%) have suffered sleep problems for more than five years.
So, when you decide to reach out for help – where do you go? Do you make an appointment with your GP? Local holistic health adviser? Or try a meditation teacher?
I’m writing a series of articles interviewing health professionals and experts in the field to find out their opinions on what to do if you can’t get a good night’s sleep and why it’s become such an issue for so many of us.
Today, I’m speaking with Susan Earl, a meditation teacher who is also an actor and stand-up comic – a contradiction? Or In fact, the perfect combination?
Susan started to meditate in her 20’s, looking for a way to wind-down after performing stand-up comedy. ‘It was hard to come down from the adrenaline rush of performing and so I started to listen to meditation CD’s and go to some classes,’ Susan recalled. ‘I found listening to a soothing voice was a great way for me to leave the gig behind and drift off to sleep.’
I asked Susan to talk to me about how meditation works and particularly how it can help people to relax and get to sleep at night.
Michelle: Why do you think there’s such an increase in people struggling to get a good night’s sleep today?
Susan: The short answer to why so many people can’t sleep is stress but what this actually means to each individual is more complicated to explain. Personally, I’ve found the scientific research from evolutionary psychologists such as Professor Paul Gilbert really helpful on understanding the source to our stress and therefore how to help ourselves calm down.
In his book, The Compassionate Mind, he explains that the way our brains have evolved means we struggle to cope with the modern world. His research talks about the brain’s ‘Drive System’ this is the area of the brain that focuses on progressing, responding with excitement and pleasure for doing and achieving. When things are going well this can lead to feeling: excited, fulfilled, empowered, inspired, happy, proud and financially secure.
However, if the drive system becomes over active, this can lead to fatigue, burn out, exhaustion and anxiety. While, an under active drive system can lead to feelings such as depression, hopelessness, boredom, insecure, lazy, sensitive and helpless.
Michelle: Can you explain how meditation helps regulate this ‘Drive System’?
Susan: Meditation is a great way to calm down the drive system This is because it activates our Self Soothing System.
When we are not under threat or trying to get something, like all mammals, we engage in self soothing behaviours. These are things which calm us down - playing, affectionate behaviour, giggling walking in nature, gardening, kissing, hugging and so many more things like this.
Meditation is one of the best things that you can do to activate your self soothing system and calm down your drive system. However if you haven’t stopped or slowed down in ages. It can feel very strange. Your drive system will tell you that you don’t have time to relax, the trick is to learn to ignore these thoughts. Then you can override this system.
Michelle: How can using meditation help to relax you and help you get to sleep?
Susan: Listening to a calming meditation before you sleep - or even if you wake up in the middle of the night can help soothe the drive system. Often people wake up worrying about something they’ve got to do the next day. This is their drive system deciding that they’ve had the minimum hours of sleep to be able to function and now they can get back to worrying or planning - remember your drive system is an endless slave driving machine - it will never be satisfied, no matter what you acheive. It’s job is always to want more.
By listening to a meditation CD in the night, they can override this drive system so they can have a good night’s sleep and then be much more productive in the morning.
Many people become so frustrated with themselves when their mind can’t switch off but often this frustration makes things worse. In my meditations I guide people to come to peace with their minds. To think of them as a loyal servant who has been working too hard and needs some help to calm down. There are certain phrases which this part of our mind is longing to hear ‘you’re doing really well’ and ‘everything’s going to be okay’.
It really doesn’t take long to calm down the mind. It may take a few times of listening to the meditation (while the mind trusts that it’s okay to let go) but once your brain is familiar with it, it should help calm down the brain’s drive system.
Additionally, meditation promotes heightened Theta and Delta activity in the brain which can help to compensate for the lost time in the Delta state during sleep. So even if you’re not ‘asleep’ if you’re meditating, you’re allowing your mind and body to be in a state of deep rest which is much better than worrying or planning.
Michelle: What top tips would you give someone who wants to learn how to meditate?
Find a CD or meditation app that works well for you. Find a voice that you find soothing and get that on your phone or device so that it's always with you if you have a bad day. That way you can sneak in a quick meditation (even just five minutes can help keep you calm).
Make it enjoyable - it’s supposed to be soothing, so rather than making it another thing on your ‘to do’ list, make it a real treat! Something you look forward to. In my classes I always recommended everyone lie down on mats and cushions and I used to include reiki and reflexology. At home, I light some incense and snuggle up with a hot water bottle. I often feel like a hedgehog in hibernation, except I’m only hibernating for 30 minutes but it makes such a huge difference to my busy life.
Get into the habit of meditating- if you’re able to set aside 5,10 or 20 minutes during the day to meditate that’s great. The more you do it, the easier it will become but if you’re overwhelmed, don’t beat yourself up about it, just do what you can. For years I would just listen before I went to sleep and if it can calm me down from the adrenaline rush of performing stand up comedy,then it can work with most things.
If you have the time then find a group or a class - it can be much easier to meditate together as long as it can easily fit around your schedule.
Find out more about how your brain works - if you understand why meditation is so important, you’re more likely to do it.
If you’re ready to give meditation a try, you can download Susan’s free ‘Help Get Me To Sleep’ guided meditation here. With this 16-minute, guided meditation anyone can experience the power of their calm mind first time. Absolutely no previous meditation experience is necessary; it's as easy as listening to a relaxing story with your eyes closed. Please make sure you’re in a safe environment before you listen.