Having trouble falling asleep is a common experience. In fact, research suggests that almost a third of adults experience chronic insomnia, a sleep disorder characterized by persistent difficulties in falling or staying asleep. However, for those of us without insomnia, tossing and turning in bed after a stressful day can be a familiar experience.
Stress and anxiety are often to blame for sleep issues. When our body’s stress response is activated, it can be immensely challenging to fall and stay asleep. Fortunately, research has shown that there is a way we can turn off the stress response. By activating another natural process, called the relaxation response, we can calm the mind, relax the body, and help ourselves drift off to sleep naturally.
Taking slow, deep breaths is one of the easiest and most basic ways to engage your body’s natural relaxation response. If you find yourself lying awake in bed, start by taking 10 deep breaths. This alone can begin to slow the breath and create a sense of calm. If you’re looking for other breathing exercises, here are a few to try.
Diaphragmatic breathing (also called belly breathing) engages the large muscle at the base of the lungs. Not only can this exercise reduce stress and increase relaxation, it can also strengthen the diaphragm and increase the efficiency of our breathing. Here’s how to try diaphragmatic breathing:
- While lying down, place one hand on your upper chest and the other hand at the top of your belly, right below your rib cage. Your hands will help to make sure that you’re only breathing through your belly during this exercise.
- Breathe in through the nose so your belly pushes against your hand. Your other hand and your chest should remain as still as possible.
- While continuing to keep your chest still, tighten your stomach muscles and exhale through pursed lips (the way you might hold your lips when you whistle).
- Repeat this process.
Because many of us aren’t used to engaging our diaphragm when we breathe, this exercise may take some practice. Try starting with just a few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing when you get into bed, then gradually increase the time to maximize benefits.
This slightly more advanced breathing technique helps control the speed of your breath. This may not be the best option if you’re uncomfortable holding your breath, but it’s generally considered safe and easy. Here’s how it works:
- Place the tip of your tongue on the roof of your mouth, right behind your front teeth (you’ll keep it here for the entire exercise).
- Inhale through your nose for 4 seconds.
- Hold your breath for a count of 7 seconds.
- Exhale through your mouth for 8 seconds, allowing your exhale to make a natural sound like you’re blowing out a candle.
Just like other breathing exercises, start with practicing this technique for a few minutes before bed. As you get used to the pace, feel free to increase the time you spend practicing 4-7-8 breathing.
Another way to engage the body’s natural relaxation response is to use visualization exercises. These techniques rely on using mental images to create a sense of well-being in the body, which can reduce stress and help you fall asleep.
Body scans are a type of meditation that feature a slow, focused attention to different parts of the body. Once you’re lying comfortably in bed, try these steps for a relaxing body scan:
- Start by taking a few deep breaths, perhaps trying diaphragmatic or 4-7-8 breathing, to get your body into a relaxed state.
- Bring your attention to your feet, noticing any sensations in your toes and if you’re holding any tension in this part of the body.
- If you notice discomfort here, acknowledge it and try to let go of any thoughts of stories you have. Visualize the tension leaving the body through the breath.
- When you’re ready, move your focus to your calf muscles, repeating the process of noticing sensations, letting go of thoughts or stories, and visualizing the tension leaving through your breath.
- Methodically move your attention to each part of your body, one-by one, moving from your feet to your forehead until you’ve scanned your entire body.
Autogenic Training takes you through the same steps as the body scan, but adds in self-statements about heaviness and warmth in each part of the body. The idea is that, with practice, you can begin to calm different parts of your body at any time. Here’s how it goes:
- Start with a few minutes of breathing exercises to get into a relaxed state.
- Next, bring your attention to your feet, then slowly repeat to yourself six times, “my feet are very heavy, I am completely calm.”
- Focus again on your feet, then slowly repeat 6 more times, “my feet are very warm, I am completely calm.”
- Repeat this process as you move your attention to each part of your body, from your feet to your head, repeating each phrase about heaviness and warmth.
If you find it too distracting to remember each phrase or count how many times you’ve said them, you can record yourself going through the process and play it back at bedtime. You can also find audio and video records online, if you’d prefer to have someone else walk you through autogenic training.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation is based on the idea that it’s hard to be tense when your muscles are relaxed. This exercise is performed by methodically tensing and relaxing 16 different muscle groups, one by one.
First, write down all of the muscle groups or make an audio recording of yourself saying each one, giving about 45 seconds in between each group to allow yourself enough time to get through the process. The muscle groups are: hands, wrists and forearms, biceps, shoulders, forehead, around the eyes and nose, cheeks and jaw, around the mouth, back of the neck, front of the neck, chest, back, stomach, hips and buttocks, thighs, and lower legs.
Once you’re ready, lie down in bed and try the technique:
- Breathe in and tense the first group of muscles for 5-10 seconds.
- Breathe out and quickly relax the muscles in that group.
- Stay relaxed for 10-20 seconds before moving to the next muscle group.
Repeat this process until you’ve gone through all 16 muscle groups. Once you’ve finished, focus on keeping all of the muscle groups relaxed as you drift off to sleep.
Self-hypnosis is similar to progressive muscle relaxation, with the added step of focusing on a specific thought once you’re fully relaxed. The idea is that progressive muscle relaxation puts your body in a hypnotic state, meaning you’re relaxed and more open to suggestion.
It can be helpful to decide on the suggestion you’ll use before starting this technique. Some people focus on a simple word, like “relax” or “let go”, while others may repeat a phrase like, “I’m relaxed and calm”. You can also record yourself saying these phrases and simply listen to them while you’re working through progressive muscle relaxation. There are also tapes and videos online with pre-recorded phrases for falling asleep.
Once you’ve decided on your suggestion or phrase, here’s how to begin:
- Get yourself comfortable and lie in bed.
- Move into a hypnotic state with a short period of progressive muscle relaxation, tensing and relaxing different muscles in the body.
- Once fully relaxed, slowly repeat your preferred phrase.
Once you’ve mastered self-hypnosis, try adding in other senses to your thought suggestion. Imagine yourself in a safe place and focus on relaxing sights, smells, and physical sensations around you. One common scenario is imagining yourself in a field of flowers, smelling lavender and feeling the warm sun on your skin.
Biofeedback is a bit more involved than other relaxation exercises because it relies on technology. This technique uses electronic devices to help users monitor processes within the body that are normally unconscious, like brain waves, heart rate, breathing, and body temperature. The idea behind this mind-body technique is that, by monitoring these body processes users can begin to exert some control over them.
If you’re interested in trying biofeedback, you can talk to your doctor or a sleep specialist about tools they may have available. For a simpler start, you could also try using a wearable device, like a smart watch, chest strap, or fitness tracker.
Check the device at different times of day to learn about what affects your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing. Once you have a grasp on what affects these processes, start to experiment with what you can do to influence them. Develop your own strategies for lowering your blood pressure and heart rate, slowing your breathing, and increasing your overall sense of well-being.
Tips for Trying Relaxation Exercises
Before you try relaxation exercises to help you fall asleep, here are some helpful tips to keep in mind.
- While these exercises can be helpful tools on their own, they may be more effective when combined with other improvements to your sleep hygiene, such as maintaining a consistent sleep schedule and cultivating daytime habits that promote sleep.
- Just like learning any new skill, relaxation exercises take practice. Repetitive and ongoing use of relaxation exercises is usually more effective than one-time or short-term use.
- While it’s tempting to look for the best and most effective relaxation techniques, what’s most important is to find what works for you. That may take some experimenting, so if one exercise doesn’t work, just try another.
While these exercises are safe for most people, others may benefit from talking to their doctors before trying these techniques. This is particularly important for those with epilepsy, psychiatric conditions, or a history of trauma.