It would be great if the switch for your bedroom light also turned off your mind. But the reality often seems to be the complete opposite: you turn the light off, and an endless train of thoughts and worries comes steaming into sight.
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 though, 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.
But the beauty of all 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
. Placeone 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:
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!
I first take a few deep breaths just to settle into the session.
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.
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.
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.
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.