Relaxation Techniques For Sleep

Updated: March 4, 2019 By Ethan Green

infographic showing typical worries and anxieties people have at night that stop them relaxing

Do you sometimes struggle to sleep because your mind is overwhelmed by an endless stream of thoughts and worries?

It would be great if you could switch off your mind as easily as the bedside light. But sometimes we need a little help to transition into sleep mode.

On this page, you’ll find some effective relaxation exercises that can quieten your busy mind and help you fall asleep easier.

You can do them during the day to help with stress, just before you go to bed, or even while lying in bed to help you drift off to sleep.

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 bedside table, close my eyes and listen to the calming instructions.

If you have a relaxing bedtime routine, you might also find it an ideal activity to do during that time. You can find many on Youtube, Spotify, phone Apps, and specialist meditation websites. Here’s one I personally enjoy:

2. Progressive muscle relaxation

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

  • Tension in the muscles can lead to tension in the mind.
  • Focusing on your body can stop you focusing on 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

  • Take a minute to simply breathe slowly and deeply in a natural way.
  • Take a deep breath and tense your toes and feet for 3 to 4 seconds.
  • 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 (not too strenuously though), 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 3 times.

Here’s a clear video that talks you through the exercise:

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 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 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 a minute to relax – 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 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 4 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 4 seconds, and then breathe out through your mouth for 4 seconds. If 4 seconds is too much or too little, you can adjust the time to suit you.
  • Continue breathing in this way for 5 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 5 or 10 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 talks you through deep breathing, with a useful timer to help you keep the rhythm.

4. The 4-7-8 yoga breathing technique

There are lots of different breathing patterns you can try, and a popular one is the 4-7-8 technique. The simple version is that you breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 7, and exhale for 8.

An interesting variation, and one that some claim helps you fall asleep faster, was pioneered by Dr. Andrew Weil. His version involves making a ‘whooshing’ sound when you breathe out.

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

5. Mindfulness exercises

Mindfulness is based on certain Buddhist principles, such as living in the moment and the acceptance of how things are. It’s growing in popularity, partly because the techniques are practical and work without needing to attribute any spiritual meaning to them.

The techniques basically 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 with that.

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

Needless to say I slept much better once I started coping better during the day. So from personal experience I recommend trying it. Have a read of my mindfulness article for more about this.

6. Readers’ suggestions

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

  • Get up for a while if you can’t sleep (if you don’t fall asleep within 30 minutes, it’s sometimes helpful to get up for 10 mins).
  • 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.

112 thoughts on “Relaxation Techniques For Sleep”

  1. 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.

    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!

  2. 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!

  3. 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!

  4. 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


    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.

  5. Ruth T Naylor, PhD

    Hello Ethan, I find that Autogenic Training works well for me and many others. Here is a link to an article about it: Jacobson’s PMR method and its derivative Applied Relaxation are one of the 7 ways Dr Herbert Benson recommended for eliciting the Relaxation Response. I’d be happy to teach you AT so that you can be able to talk with your followers about it from personal experience – it works! Thanks again for your article, much appreciated, Ruth

    1. Hi Ruth
      Thanks for your comment and useful suggestion. I’d love to hear more about it if you have experience of it.

  6. Any certain tips for getting sleep when you are sick with a cold? I’ve tried nighttime medicines they just keep me awake and when I do finally fall asleep it’s only for about an hour and not very deep sleep.

    1. Hi Nikko
      Thanks for your comment. It’s not always easy to sleep when you’re unwell, unfortunately. Some people find medicine like Benadryl helps because it’s both good for cold symtoms and also known to help with sleep. But if you’re not a fan of using medicine, either for the cold or sleep, perhaps trying natural remedies to deal with your symptoms might help. Here’s a useful article on about clearing congestion to get you started.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

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