The Power of Repetition Controls My Racing Thoughts in the Middle of the Night

My anxiety started getting the best of me and my sleep when I was around 13 years old. I vividly remember walking down the hallway of my childhood home in the middle of the night and waking my mom up to confess that my racing thoughts and fears had kept me up for hours. Did I study enough for that math test? Would I get asked to the school dance? What was that noise I just heard outside?!

I simply couldn't fall back asleep, and I needed my mom to fix it ASAP. Her advice? To crawl back into bed, breathe deep, and repeat a prayer or a calming phrase to myself over and over and over again — and it's a tool I still use and swear by today, some 15 years later.

Whenever I wake up in the middle of the night out of stress or anxiety (which is fairly often, unfortunately), I'll begin to deeply breathe in and out and repeat a phrase to myself — often it's "everything is OK" or "I'm calm. I'm OK." Within a matter of minutes, I feel my body relax and begin to drift off to sleep. I've always viewed it as a form of meditation. It helps me avoid the grogginess, foul moods, and tension headaches that inevitably come with a poor night's sleep.

Curious if my trick to catching zzz's is an actual method I wasn't aware of, I started to do some heavy research.

After landing on a few pages about sleeping phrases, I ended up on the phone with Dr. Rajkumar Dasgupta, MD, FACP, FCCP, FAASM.

The first thing he told me is that sleep is very individualized — what works for you might not help someone else fall asleep. "I want you to visualize sleep as a puzzle," he said to me. "What are those puzzle pieces to get good sleep? For some people, the puzzle piece could be sound. That's why some people use white noise. It could be temperature — what you wear when you go to bed could be a big thing. Another could be that sense of snuggling — that's why weighted blankets are such a big thing," he continued.

What we concluded was my missing puzzle piece to a good night's sleep was likely this concept of meditation and breath work paired together.

In terms of breath work, Dr. Dasgupta approves of diaphragmatic breathing to promote relaxation for a better night's sleep, as well as just general lung health. "Breathe in through the nose, do a breath hold, and then out through the mouth, slowly and really using the diaphragm," he said.

But meditation, Dr. Dasgupta mentioned, is a very broad term and can mean many different things to many different people. Was it guided? Did you use your phone? Are you focusing on mindfulness?

For me, it's about staying within the moment, focusing on my breath — mirroring qualities of concentration meditation, as well as small aspects of mindfulness meditation, which studies have suggested can help fight insomnia and improve quality of sleep.

However, when it comes to how long it takes for one to fall asleep, or sleep latency, more research needs to be done on mindfulness meditation, said Dr. Gail Saltz, MD, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine.

"Mindfulness meditation is generally more than the repeating of a phrase in your mind. It is a form of meditation though that does have to do with being very present, aware of your present, what all your senses are experiencing, and of what's in your mind — but more as an observation rather than a driven experience," she told me. "Mindfulness is known to improve the quality of your non-sleep day and may even improve the quality of your sleep, but the jury is still out regarding its impact on time to fall asleep."

Because — as Dr. Dasgupta said — sleep is individual, I sadly can't say my method of relaxation or really any meditation or breathing technique will help you drift off to sleep, too.

What I can provide? The advice of Dr. Dasgupta — which is to give yourself the proper foundations of sleep: think practice set bedtimes, set wake times, stimulus control, only using the bed for sleep, and getting good exercise.

If you are interested in seeing if meditation can improve your quality of sleep, try this how-to suggested on the Harvard Health Blog or download an app like Inscape or Headspace.