Relaxation Techniques For Sleep

insomnia infographicDo you often find yourself lying awake at night with your mind full of all kinds of thoughts?

Do you worry about important things like the future, work, family, relationships, health or finances?

And perhaps worst of all, do you then feel anxious about whether you’ll ever actually fall asleep because of all that thinking?

If this sounds familiar, you’re definitely not alone. In the busy modern world sometimes the night is the only real time we have to think about important issues.

As you probably already know though, thinking leads to worrying and can be a significant cause of sleeplessness. So practicing relaxation techniques to calm your overactive mind and unwind from a busy day can be an effective way to overcome insomnia.

In this article you’ll find step by step instructions and videos for exercises which can help you calm your mind and relax. You can do them before you go to bed in a quiet space, or even when you’re in bed to help you fall asleep.

Contents

1) Guided meditation

2) Progressive muscle relaxation

3) Deep breathing exercises

4) The 4-7-8 yoga breathing technique

5) Mindfulness

6) How many people can’t sleep because of thinking, worrying and anxiety?

1) Guided meditation

Listening to a guided meditation soundtrack is a great way to instantly dip into the world of meditation without having to do any background reading. It’s also a great way to distract your mind from all those thoughts and relax at night.

One of my favourite things to do is to play one of the guided meditation videos in this article on my phone. I leave it playing on the bedside table, close my eyes and simply listen to the calming instructions. It usually works wonders.

If you have a relaxing bedtime routine before bed, you might also find it an ideal activity to do during that time. Below are some guided meditation tracks which I recommend. I suggest having a quick listen to each one to decide whether the voice and style suit you before actually using it to help you sleep.

Video 1

Video 2

Video 3

2) Progressive muscle relaxation

Progressive muscle relaxation is a simple and practical technique which works well for several reasons:

  • It relieves tension in the muscles which leads to mental relaxation too.
  • By focusing on your body it takes your attention away from worrying thoughts.
  • By tensing and releasing your muscles you learn what a relaxed state feels like, which helps you to get yourself into that relaxed state.

Like guided meditation you can do this exercise when you like. Personally, I find it helpful to do once I’m in bed and sometimes follow it with a meditation exercise if I feel I need to spend more time relaxing.

Step by step muscle relaxation

  • First take a minute to simply breathe slowly and deeply.
  • Take a deep breath and tense your toes and feet for a few seconds (3-4 seconds is fine), then exhale slowly and release the tension.
  • Take a deep breath and tighten your lower leg muscles, hold for a few seconds and then relax again with the exhale of breath.
  • Breathe in and tense your upper legs, hold and relax.
  • Breathe in and tense your abdomen and lower back, hold for a few seconds and then relax.
  • Repeat with your chest and upper back.
  • Repeat with your hands, lower arms, then upper arms, shoulders and neck.
  • Then you can tense your face – screwing it up may help to tense it properly.
  • Finally you can tense your whole body, hold for a few seconds and slowly exhale whilst ensuring your whole body relaxes from the tension.
  • Repeat the full body tensing 3 times.

If you find it helpful to be guided through this process, you can play the video below and follow the instructions.

3) Deep breathing exercises

Deep breathing is calming to do either on its own or along with other relaxation techniques for sleep. In fact, most meditations will encourage you to focus on your breathing at some point.

There are 2 main components to this style of breathing: learning to breathe into your abdomen rather than just the chest, and breathing at a controlled and slow rate.

It’s an effective technique for several reasons:

  • It relaxes your muscles.
  • It can help slow your heart rate down.
  • It can help slow down your breathing if anxiety is affecting it.
  • It takes your attention away from the thoughts you might be having trouble stopping.

Step by step deep breathing

a diagram showing deep breathing through the abdomen

  • You can do this exercise wherever you like. Sitting in a chair, lying in bed or even standing up.
  • Take a minute to relax and try to mentally release tension from your muscles.
  • Close your eyes and focus your attention on your breathing.
  • Place one hand on your stomach and one on your chest. See if they both rise when you breathe in or just one of them rises. You don’t need to do anything in particular at this time. Just see which hand is rising and pay attention to it. This will tell you if you naturally breathe with your abdomen, chest or both.
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose for the count of 5 seconds. Try to breathe in such a way that the hand on your stomach rises, and the hand on your chest only rises a little. This is called abdominal breathing and what you should ideally try to do. You may find it tricky at first, but keep practicing and it will come in time.
  • Once you breathe in, hold your breath for 5 seconds, and then breathe out through your mouth for 5 seconds. If 5 seconds is too much or too little, you can adjust the time to suit you.
  • Continue breathing in this way for 5 minutes, counting 5 seconds as you breathe in, holding for 5 seconds and exhaling for 5 seconds every time.
  • Once you’ve learned how to breathe with your abdomen you can remove your hands and place them down by your sides when you do the exercise.
  • You can set yourself a goal to practice this deep breathing exercise for 5 or 10 minutes. But really, there’s no time limit. I sometimes just keep doing the exercise until I fall asleep or feel so sleepy that I know I’ll drift off soon enough.

Deep breathing video

If you’ve never practiced deep breathing before, the following video is a useful resource. It has an on-screen timer to help you get used to the timing of each step.

4) The 4-7-8 yoga breathing technique

In 2015 the internet was flooded with reports of a breathing technique which could make you fall asleep in under 1 minute. I don’t think that’s exactly true, at least not for everyone, but nonetheless it is a very good technique.

The method was pioneered by Dr Andrew Weil, who does warn that it takes a couple of months to master the technique and you have to be careful how long you practice it for each time.

In the video below, Dr Weil explains how to do the breathing technique.

5) Mindfulness exercises

In recent years, mindfulness has become popular with many mental health professionals. It’s also a great self-help practice which you can learn and do at home.

It’s widely regarded as an effective way to treat stress, anxiety, depression, pain and importantly an overactive mind.

Mindfulness is based on certain Buddhist principles such as living in the moment and the acceptance of how things are.

The good thing though is that the techniques are practical and work effectively without needing to attribute any spiritual meaning to them.

The techniques work by focusing your awareness in the moment. So if you’re lying awake at night worrying about the past or future, it can help you deal with that.

On a personal note, I became interested in mindfulness during a particularly difficult period of my life. Within just a few days of practicing the techniques I started to cope much better with the stress and anxiety I was experiencing.

Needless to say I slept much better because of that. So from personal experience I recommend considering mindfulness if you’re currently suffering from anxiety, stress or depression.

It’s more complex than the previous exercises, so to find out more you can read my longer article about mindfulness techniques.

6) How many people can’t sleep because of anxiety?

In 2014 I asked 2000 readers why they felt they couldn’t sleep. The results of the poll were that 58% felt it was their overactive mind keeping them up. A further 24% said it was worry or stress. The third most popular answer, with 11%, was feeling uncomfortable.

In the second poll readers were asked to specify what kinds of thought or worries they had. 38% said it was a mixture of various thoughts. 24% said it was random thoughts. And 13% said it was worrying about the future.

What was clear from the poll then is that a clear majority of people felt they can’t sleep because of thinking and worrying about many different things.

You can see in the infographic below more of the answers readers gave to the poll:

infographic showing the reason people can't sleep such as worry, stress and anxiety

Your views

I’m very interested in hearing your views. Do you find it hard to switch your brain off at night? What do you usually find yourself thinking about? Feel free to leave a comment below.

94 CommentsLeave a comment

  • My problem is not getting to sleep so much as staying asleep. I wake up sometimes because my blood sugar is low, I am a diabetic, or because my mind hears something my conscious mind doesn’t. Then I can’t get back to sleep.

    • Hi Anna
      Thanks for your comment. Have you spoken to your doctor about this to ask them if they have any advice about staying asleep considering your personal medical history?
      I hope that you also found some useful ideas in this article of things you can do when you wake up in the night. You might also like to read this article in which I discuss that problem in depth.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I just do not sleep. Due to my Secondary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis I can not move much either. Also with every night without sleep I can not force myself to move. I feel my MS would get better if I could only give my brain some rest. Last night was night #3 without any sleep what-so-ever (I know because after 1-2 hours I follow suggestions that I read somewhere and either sit up, or just get out of bed – the room is still dark mind you). Help!

  • I would really appreciate some help its been a week since i am struggling to sleep and im having an awful insomnia im just sleeping for three hours a night only one night inslept 8!hours but then again last night i slept only three hours i just need some help i dont want to live like this because it makes my anxiety and depression worse im also started to take lexapro , but i dont want to take sleeping pills but im even scared to not be able to sleep my head feels numb i heard that people are placed in psychiatric hospitals duo to sleep deprivation and this is scaring me so much im also taking magnesium i just need some help please i dont want to live like this!

    • Hi Ana
      Thanks for your comment. I can understand your distress and worry. It sounds from your comment like you’re having a lot of anxiety because of this, which is something that can put you in a vicious cycle of not sleeping because you worry about not sleeping. I think it’s good that you found this article, so maybe you can try to put the techniques into practice and see if they help.
      Have you spoken to your primary care doctor about your sleep problems? I assume they prescribed the lexapro, so maybe it’s wise to speak to them about the sleep problems you’ve been having recently.
      As for the hospital worry, try not to think about that too much. It’s very rare that people go to hospital because of sleep deprivation because the body has a way of looking after itself so that sooner or later you will sleep again.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • I lay awake for hours. Pain from a leg/knee injury in the military. Does anyone have relaxation techniques for pain? Is meditation good as you go to sleep for pain?
    TC

    • Hi Tony
      Thanks for your comment. You can do the exercises in this article to help distract yourself from the pain and feel less anxious about it. Meditation is thought to be good for helping you cope with pain when it comes to sleeping, yes.
      There are lots of chronic pain associations, and if you search online for your region, you might be able to find support groups. A good example is the website of the Australian pain management association which has some useful ideas for coping with pain.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • My daughter is now 15 and hasn’t been sleeping well since she was 9. Taken her to various sleep specialists, psychiatrist, psychologist, body tapping, natural remedies and nothing is really helping. We are all very tired and frustrated as she keeps us all awake.

    • Hi Lidia
      Thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear that, it must be very difficult for all of you. Did they actually come up with a diagnosis for why she doesn’t sleep well? Is there anything at all that helps even a little bit that you could tell me, and I’ll see if there’s anything else along that line of thinking?
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi :) Im Shanie,

    I have not been able to sleep a good nights sleep in at least 3 years. Im only 23 and each time i get in bed its like my mind just starts thinking and i end up keeping myself awake. The thoughts are very similar to what i read above and are always random. If i do sleep straight away i dream alot or ill be back up in a few hours but wont be able to go back to sleep though im tired. Thank you so much :)

    • Hi Shanie
      Thanks for your comment. I hope the article was helpful for you. If you’ve been struggling with this for so long, I’d definitely recommend trying mindfulness, as it goes much deeper than basic relaxation exercises. It’s something you can start to work on, and then continue to in the long-term and has a lot of potential to help calm the mind.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi, Im Kathryn, and the reason I have trouble sleeping at night is just of my intense anxiety that can sometimes even lead to anxiety attacks. Do you have any advice to guarantee a full nights sleep without constantly waking up, and to ease my mind?

    • Hi Kathryn
      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately I don’t have any advice that can guarantee a good night’s sleep. Do you, or have you in the past, receive help for the anxiety? If it’s a serious problem, it might be good to get some support in the form of a therapist. I’d also strongly recommend the mindfulness option if you like self-help, as it can be a powerful way to deal with anxiety. And of course, do try to follow the advice in this article as even simple relaxation techniques can be very effective – particularly those involving controlling your breathing.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hello Ethan
    Since two weeks I Am having sleeping difficulties . It take me 2 hours to sleep .and at night suddenly after 3 hours wake up and then again some time before sleeping . Every alternate day I felt I sleep less than 3 hours .what you suggest ? I am doing yoga and meditation since some days . What techniques before bedtime so I can sleep well

    • Hi Ankur
      Thanks for your comment. It’s actually quite common to wake up in the night for a while, and then go back to sleep again later. It happens to me almost every night, and I’ve now learned to live with it, accept it and not allow it to stress me out. I wrote an article about waking in the night which you might find helpful. Otherwise, yoga and meditation are great ways to relax before bed, so I would say keep up with that and hopefully it will start helping.
      Regards
      Ethan

    • Hi Trevor
      Thanks for your comment. I understand – pain can make it very difficult to sleep. My advice would be to speak to your doctor about this and see if they can help you manage the pain better.
      Regards
      Ethan

    • Hi James
      Thanks for your comment. There could be various reasons for it, but I wouldn’t worry too much if it only happens when you’re tired. The solution, of course, is to try to get more sleep!
      Regard
      Ethan

  • I am always thinking about my day and all the stresses, and then it turns to “when am I going to fall asleep.” This is my nightly routine. I even take Trazadone and Belsomra. I love the star meditation!

    • Hi Shannan
      Thanks for your comment. It’s very common to worry about falling asleep, and something that’s good to try and avoid. Doing exercises like the breathing and muscle relaxation are good because they can help distract your mind from thinking unhelpful thoughts about sleep.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi Im Cay-Leigh .. I cant sleep at night . I see shadows and black things on top of me . I dont know what they are . Are they really just my mind playing tricks on me.. Because it feels very real… I just experienced and decided to look for help on the internet and I saw your page .. I tried the 4-7-8 yoga practise but it doesnt help .. May it be because Im not doing it right?
    Hope to hear from you soon!

    • Hi Cay-Leigh
      Thanks for your comment. The things you see are what are known as sleep hallucinations. They are very common, and happen to many people at some time in their lives. Have a read of this article for more about the hallucinations.
      You probably were doing it right, but it just might not be the best technique for you. Try the others and see if they help, and also, I’d recommend talking about your sleep problems with your family.
      Regards
      Ethan

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