Relaxation Techniques For Sleep

photo of a woman relaxing at sunset

It would be great if the switch for your bedroom light also turned off your mind. The reality is all too often the complete opposite though. You turn the light off, and an endless stream of thoughts and worries begins.

If you’re sometimes kept awake by your overactive mind, there are many practical steps and lifestyle adjustments that might help, some of which I’ve covered in the main sleep tips article.

In this article, I’m going to look at some techniques for relaxation that you can even do once you’re lying in bed and realize that you’re in for a night of unwanted thinking keeping you awake.

I’d also suggest doing them earlier in the day or evening in the long run as part of a concerted effort to reduce stress in your life, if that’s a particular problem for you.

The beauty of these exercises is that you can do them at any time in just a few minutes. And they all have the potential to help you unwind and hopefully fall asleep.

1. Guided meditation

Following a guided meditation is a simple way to take your mind off your worries, focus on something positive, and relax.

If I can’t sleep, I’ll sometimes listen to a meditation video or audio track through my phone. I leave it playing on the nightstand, close my eyes and listen to the calming instructions.

If you have a relaxing bedtime routine that you like to repeat, it’s a good time to squeeze in a guided meditation. You can find many on Youtube, Spotify, apps on your smartphone or tablet, and specialist meditation websites.

Here’s one I like:

2. Progressive muscle relaxation

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

  • Tension in the muscles can lead to tension in the mind.
  • Focusing on your body can turn your attention away from your thoughts.
  • By tensing and releasing your muscles you learn what a relaxed state feels like. And that gives you a goal to work towards when relaxing at night.

Step by step muscle relaxation

  • Breathe slowly and deeply in a natural way for 30 to 60 seconds.
  • Take a deep breath and tense your toes and feet for three to four seconds (however long is comfortable for you).
  • Slowly exhale, and relax your toes and feet again.
  • 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 then 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.
  • Tense your face, scrunching it up tightly.
  • Finally, tense your whole body at once, and hold for a few seconds.
  • Slowly exhale and relax your entire body, with a gentle sigh if you like.
  • Repeat the full body process three times.

Here’s a calming video that talks you through progressive muscle relaxation:

3. Deep breathing exercises

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

There are two 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 relaxation 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 worrying thoughts.
  • You can continue doing it for as long as you like in bed.

Step by step deep breathing

  • Take 30 to 60 seconds to get comfortable and try to relax naturally.
  • 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 if 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.
  • Breathe in slowly through your nose for the count of four 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 four seconds, and then breathe out through your mouth for four seconds. If four seconds is too much or too little, you can adjust the time to suit you.
  • Continue breathing in this way for five minutes.
  • Once you’ve learned how to breathe with your abdomen, you can place your arms by your sides when you do the exercise.
  • You can set yourself a goal to practice this deep breathing exercise for five to ten minutes. But really, there’s no time limit. I sometimes just keep doing the exercise until I fall asleep.

Deep breathing video

The next video first explains how to do deep breathing, and then talks you through an exercise.

4. A short routine if you have limited time or patience

Despite writing an article discussing meditation and relaxation techniques, I have a little secret: I find it difficult to sit still for long meditation sessions! I’m just a naturally born active and fidgety person.

I’m also not a huge fan of sitting cross-legged, and I’m pretty sure I’ve already missed the chance to become bendy enough for the lotus position during this lifetime.

So after years of experimenting with relaxation exercises and mindfulness techniques, I decided to put together a routine that was short, positive and effective.

What I like about it is that I can do all of these steps in just five to ten minutes, but they are enough to help me relax and go to bed feeling positive. I first started with just five minutes, and added an extra minute every two weeks. So now I tend to do ten, but if I’m really not feeling it, I stick to five.

Here’s what I do, and why:

Step 1

I usually lie on the floor for the entire five minutes, but I tend to change positions a couple of times to stretch muscles that are tight. It also stops me from getting frustrated by being in one position the whole time.

Sometimes I hug my knees to my chest while lying on my back. I might also lie with my hips out, and my arms behind my head with my arms out – the splayed frog pose, as I like to call it.

So basically, I meditate and stretch out sore muscles at the same time – two for the price of one!

Step 2

I first take a few deep breaths just to settle into the session.

Step 3

I think of three things I’m grateful for today. It can be anything: an awesome meal, a nice sunny day, a phone call from family or friends. Remembering that someone loves me.

Step 4

I then tell myself in my head “The day is over. Let it go. Forget it”. I just feel this helps close the day nicely.

Step 5

I practice some simple forgiveness. If I did something or said something I feel bad about that day, I forgive myself. Likewise if someone did something that got under my skin.

If nothing happened of note that day, I think back to something in the past that I’m still harboring.

Just let it go.

It’s surprising how simply choosing to forgive yourself or someone else, or even the bad weather that day, can help you unwind.

If you’re the kind of person that finds it hard to forgive, aren’t ready to forgive someone that springs to mind, or feel that forgiveness requires more effort, don’t stress about this step. This is your time, remember. Maybe start small with forgiving the weather for raining on you or something else relatively superficial.

Step 6

I finish by doing some deep breathing. But with each out breath I imagine following the breath into the room, then the building, then the neighborhood, the city, country, world, and beyond – if my imagination is up to it today.

If not, just a few meters usually does the trick of getting me out of my head, thoughts, and worries.

And that’s it. Feel free to give it a go and let me know if you liked it in the comments.

And there’s no reason to stick to the standard relaxation routines you find in articles like this one and countless others. Get creative, and put together your own happy relaxation routine if you have some ideas of what might work for you.

5. Readers’ suggestions

Here are some ideas that readers have suggested. Feel free to add your own in the comments below.

  • Get up for a while if you can’t sleep.
  • Do yoga.
  • Do stretching before bed.
  • Don’t watch horror films before bed.
  • If noise keeps you awake, don’t let it stress you out – find a way to stop it or reduce it.
  • Try a sleep hypnosis recording.
  • Try some aromatherapy before going to bed.

113 thoughts on “Relaxation Techniques For Sleep”

  1. Thankyou for sharing your steps. Thankfulness and forgiveness is great keys to a good sleep and a good life that I already practice as a believer in God and Jesus. I will definitely add those other steps to my evening rituals!

    1. You’re welcome Chris. I really do think those simple practices are great to do every day. They don’t take long, and just help to bring a little positivity into the day.

  2. Rhea Are the techniques to fall back asleep mid night the same as those to originally fall asleep? Seems it would be. Thanks on advance.

  3. Will Pennington

    Great article! I learned a few things that I will use immediately. I tried CBT last year for my sleep maintenance insomnia but it didn’t seem to help. The problem may have been that, while my work commute and desired quitting time dictate that I get up at 0330, I still kept my 2100-0530 weekend/day off sleeping hours. So, I’m going to try the sleep schedule worksheet again but stick to the same wake up time throughout the week.

    Sleep aids including hydroxyzine and trazodone are hit or miss, and melatonin doesn’t seem to help. I do all the things recommended for a good night’s sleep, but I rarely sleep more than six solid hours, then have a hard time falling back asleep. Five hours seems to be the norm. (I did sleep one night with our purring cat on my chest and slept better than usual, but that may have been because I was exhausted from consecutive bad nights. But, hmmmm, you never know 🤔

    Anyway, if I learn to sleep solid again, I’ll let you know!

    Best,
    Will

    1. Hi Will
      Thanks, I’m very happy to hear you liked the article. I hope some of the suggestions do help, and it’s always good to hear from people again to see how they got on with any of my suggestions.
      Regards
      Ethan

  4. Hello Ethan,

    First of all I would truly thank you for sharing your ideas. Though I don’t know, I’m not sure if it’s going to work, as it’s been a long time that I’ve been spending sleepless nights. I’ve tried Meditation, mindfulness, sleep hypnosis, and a couple of more stuff.
    I’ve not tried much of music things as I tried some brainwave generator music once that my professor suggested and it didn’t help.
    But I really appreciate your kind efforts and for sharing this informative post.
    Thanks,
    Jenny

    1. Hi Jenny
      Thanks for your lovely comment! It’s always encouraging to read words like yours. It’s a shame those techniques haven’t worked for you. Even so, I’d stick with the meditation and mindfulness as they are great in so many ways!
      Regards
      Ethan

  5. I have been having sleeping issues for the past year. I get very frustrated when I can’t fall asleep. I take melatonin but it doesn’t seem to help. This article provided lots of information and I am going to try some of these techniques to help me sleep tonight!

    1. Hi Elena
      Thanks for your comment. Melatonin doesn’t work well for everyone, so hopefully you’ll have more joy with the relaxation exercises!
      Regards
      Ethan

  6. I cannot sleep with music of any kind, or whisper talking. It agitates me.
    These new age things just do not grab me. Sorry

    1. Hi there
      I totally understand – not everyone will appreciate or find these kinds of techniques calming. Maybe I should put in a separate section for people who aren’t into techniques that might seem too new age!
      Regards
      Ethan

  7. Hi Ethan,

    I’m not sure if you’re still picking up comments on this article. I just stumbled across it in the middle of the night.

    I wondered if you could help. Basically I am a shift worker. I do two weeks of nights, then lates, then earlies, then days, then the cycle repeats itself. I find it’s okay midway / towards the end of my two weeks in the certain shift but then it’s time to switch to the next one and my body doesn’t know when it’s bed time.

    Once I’m asleep I stay asleep and I’ve always been a good sleeper (up until this job) but do you have any tips please on how to cope better with the constant change in what time is bed time and also how to move from nights into day time again as that’s what I find the hardest. After my last night I only sleep for 3 hours in the hope that I’ll be able to fall asleep at a normal time that evening but I still find myself up all night even though I am sleep deprived.

    Many thanks in advance for any advice

    Phillippa

    1. Hi Phillipa
      Thanks for your comment, and yes, I always read all the comments on the site.
      My advice would be to check online for nursing and medical profesional websites that give advice about shift work. As it’s a major issue for healthcare workers, you can find some great tips, even if it’s not relevant to your specific field.
      Regards
      Ethan

  8. A woman I am falling in love with is suffering with night terrors from something horrible that happened to her not long ago and I want to do everything I can to help her win this battle. Your a very special man to help so many and I just wanted to say thank you very much for all you do.

    1. Hi Danny
      Thanks for your comment and kind words! You also seem like a good man for wanting to do what you can to help her. If something happened that was bad enough to cause this, perhaps speaking to a professional about it would be a good idea. It’s not always the easiest thing to do – suggest someone sees a counselor. But perhaps you could ask if she’s heard that there are counselors who can help with night terrors would be a subtle way to approach it.
      Regards
      Ethan

  9. Thank you for offering all these ideas in one place. I will try them. I have been using a sleep hypnosis recording for about a year quite successfully. I still have nights when it doesn’t work but it is often effective when I’m thinking too much, especially. I don’t know if it’s ok to link here so I’ll just suggest people search for Marc Schoen PhD. Go to Products then Audio Downloads. Deep Sleep Hypnosis.
    I also really like the herbal remedy: “I Sleep Soundly” by Banyan Botanicals. I’m an herbalist and have researched pharmaceutical and nutrient remedies for years. Most are too sedating or addicting. This one is neither. Getting enough Magnesium in the diet is important and a supplement of Magnesium Glycinate at night is calming. I’m also interested in how gene polymorphisms affect sleep and what supplements might be helpful. It’s a new field so not much is established but I think it’s promising.

    1. Hi Marian
      Thanks for your comment – I’m happy to hear you liked the article, and I hope they help you. I think sleep hypnosis recordings can work really well, and have used them myself several times. I’ll have a look for the one your mentioned.
      I’ve tried many herbal remedies, but not that one – I’ll have to check it out too! It sounds like you’ve done a lot of research into sleep and remedies. If you’re following this thread, it would be interesting to hear more about your views on herbal remedies for sleep!
      Regards
      Ethan

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