Relaxation Techniques For Sleep

Last updated on: September 15, 2017 By Ethan Green

infographic showing typical worries and anxieties people have at night that stop them relaxingDo you sometimes find yourself lying awake at night, with your mind overwhelmed by an endless stream of thoughts?

Do you tend to worry about the future, work, family, your relationship, health or finances?

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

In the busy modern world, sometimes we don’t get enough time to think about important matters during the day. So in the quiet of the night, it’s not unusual for your brain to make time to do some thinking.

As you probably already know though, too much thinking can lead to anxiety and stress, which can be a significant cause of sleeplessness.

So practicing relaxation techniques can be an effective way to unwind from a hectic day, calm your overactive mind and hopefully fall asleep quicker.

In this article, you’ll find step by step instructions and videos for some effective relaxation exercises. You can do them before you go to bed in a quiet space, or 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) Readers’ relaxation tips


1) Guided meditation

Listening to a guided meditation is a great way to instantly dip into the relaxing world of meditation, without having to learn any theory. And it’s an effective way to take your mind off all your worries and focus on something else instead.

Personally, if I can’t sleep I often play one of the guided meditation videos below 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, you might also find it an ideal activity to do during that time. Have a quick listen to the videos below to see if the styles suit you. If not, you can find many alternatives on Youtube, Spotify and specialist meditation websites.

Video 1

Video 2


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 takes your attention away from worrying thoughts.
  • By tensing and releasing your muscles you learn what a relaxed state feels like, giving you a goal to work towards when relaxing at night.

Like guided meditation you can do this exercise whenever you need to. Personally, I find it helpful to do once I’m in bed, and sometimes follow it with a meditation exercise if it’s taking me a while to unwind.

Step by step muscle relaxation

  • First 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. 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, scrunching it up tightly.
  • Finally you can tense your whole body at once, hold for a few seconds and slowly exhale whilst ensuring your whole body let’s go of 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 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 your busy mind.
  • You can continue doing it for as long as you like in bed.

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 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, counting 4 seconds as you breathe in, holding for 4 seconds and exhaling for 4 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 a 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’s another good technique to try.

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 very popular, with many mental health professionals recommending it to patients. It’s 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 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 you deal with that.

On a personal note, I became interested in mindfulness during a particularly difficult period of my life. Within just a week 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 suffer from anxiety, stress or depression.

Although many of the techniques are relatively simple, it’s really worthwhile learning some of the theory behind it. To find out more, you might like to read my longer article about mindfulness techniques.


6) Readers’ relaxation tips

Some of the most useful advice across this website has come from the readers. So I think it’s both useful and interesting to keep lists of advice, techniques and tips where relevant.

So below you’ll find ideas that previous readers have left in the comments regarding relaxation techniques for sleep, or in their daily life in general.

  • Sit up in bed, or get up, if you don’t fall asleep (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 ¬†away to stop it or reduce it (my article about reducing noise at night might help).

Over to you

Do you have any relaxation techniques you’ve tried in the past, that either have or haven’t worked? Would you like to share you story and what it is that keeps you awake at night?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

110 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Hi, m one of Buddhist monk from south India.. I m getting trouble with sleep.. My usual timing for bed is 10:30 pm to till 3:30 am…. Now a days, m not feeling comfortable on bed and not having good sleep… It happened before few months and now it’s second time… Actually, I don have worry or any stress but when I go to bed and ly down, different thought arise and I can’t stop it… Being me as in silent retreat for some years, I don have any way to go for medical checkup and so on… Please, give me some idea or information about ” good sleep”. Thank you… May god bless u all and I too pray to clearify all yours abstacles and fulfill wishes…

    • Hi there
      Thanks for your comment. Interestingly, a lot of the relaxation advice I give tends to have either roots in, or similarities, to Buddhist meditation techniques. But I guess I can’t advise you to learn those techniques, as you probably already know many different relaxation techniques which you can do at night in bed.
      Do you find you actually feel tired when you go to bed? And is there anything you can do to improve the comfort of your bed?
      Regards
      Ethan

  • So my question is, do you do all of these techniques to fall asleep? Or do you pick and choose? Or do you only do one? Or do you do different ones on different days? Been having trouble sleeping recently (going to bed at 10 PM and not being able to sleep until 5 or 6 AM, only to get up 2 hours later), and I’m not sure where to begin. Some insight would be helpful!

    • Hi Malak
      That’s a good question! Ideally, just one or two would be enough to do the trick. I gave different ideas as some people will find one technique works better for them, or they just feel more comfortable doing it. But if you’re awake for ages, then there’s no harm in cycling through them – if you can handle doing one relaxation exercise after another! Personally, I find just breathing works well for me. I’ll do it for up to 10 mins in bed, but if I still don’t feel sleepy after all that time, I might get up for a bit, do something relaxing, then go back to bed and try again. But then again, I’ve also tried listening to really long meditation clips, and kind of spent 30-60 mins drifting in and out of sleep listening to the audio. To be honest, it depends as much on my mood as anything else which method I go for.
      It’s really up to you to experiment and see what helps. Have you also read my article about fixing your sleep routine? That might help, as it seems going to bed 9-10 hours before your wake up time might be too early, and setting yourself up for getting frustrated if you go to bed when you’re really not tired enough yet.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi, I’m Jake. I often have trouble falling asleep at night mainly due to the stress I encounter at school. I usually get into bed around 10:30. On nights where I can’t fall asleep, I can be up anywhere from 12:00-3:30. Usually, after 3:30, my body will shut down and I have to wake up at 6:00. I am going into 11th grade, and last year I had problems falling asleep at least once a week. I perform well in school, but I always feel as if I am not doing enough. I have been called a perfectionist due to my work ethic while also balancing two sports and other extra curricular activities. During the summer, my anxiety and sleeping problems almost vanished completely, but in the last few weeks, the problems have aroused again. I was considering consulting my doctor about this issue. Do you have any advice; I have tried breathing exercises before and it is hard to perform them due to my heart racing and the constant thinking. Thank you for your consideration.

    • Hi Jake
      Thanks for your comment. I can completely understand you – I also used to get anxious at school, and was a bit of a perfectionist too! It’s great that you’ve tried breathing exercises before – it shows you’re willing to try things that might help. Sometimes it can take a while to get into the swing of doing them and for it to become a routine that you can relax into. Dealing with constant thinking is something that is possible to do, but can take a little practice. I often recommend something called mindfulness techniques to help with that. It’s basically all about accepting that everyone has lots of thoughts, accepting them, not stressing about them and allowing them to pass without becoming fixated on them.
      If you have a racing heart though, that’s something I’d speak to your doctor about as well. Getting their reassurance and advice might help you to relax at night. But again, if it’s a symptom of anxiety, it’s something you can learn to control in time if you keep practicing positive relaxation techniques.
      I also highly recommend talking to your family about how you feel, if you don’t already. And if your school has a tutor or psychologist you can see to talk through how school is making you feel, that might help too.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi my name is Lauren
    I have anxiety and really struggle to switch my mind off because it’s going at 1000mph with thoughts and worries and I stress myself out without intending to! I’m very interested in mindfulness techniques and will be researching into it! I can’t seem to sleep through the whole night, I end up waking up multiple times either for no reason or because I’m needing to pee and when I go there isn’t actually enough to require the urge to go in the first place, it makes me feel like I haven’t slept very well! I don’t know what to do to stop this from happening.

    • Hi Lauren
      Thanks for your comment. I can empathize with you – it’s never nice lying in bed with an overactive mind. Do try the tips in the article, and the mindfulness article too – they can make a profound difference. I’d also try not drinking liquids a couple of hours before bed. Maybe just a small amount of water or milk to prevent dehydration. And if it keeps happening, maybe get checked out by a doctor for infections.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hello my name is anne-marie,
    In the last 2 months my sleep has been affected badly, I go to bed around 10 pm and have no problem falling asleep but then I wake at 4 am usually, I fall back to sleep again and have vivid dreams sometimes nightmares, I wake myself up and usually I’m breathing heavy and trembling. I’m worried about not getting enough sleep, I do have significant depression and anxiety but I don’t want to take medication, is there something I can do that will help stop the vivid dreams and help me sleep through the night?
    Thank you

    • Hi Anne-Marie
      Thanks for your comment. I think you’re on the right track looking into relaxation exercises – they can certainly help you stay calm when unsettling things happen in your sleep. Perhaps it might be good to get up for 5-10 mins when you wake at 4, have a cup of milk or water, and then sleep again. You could also try the tips in my article about nightmares, but it might be difficult to completely stop having vivid dreams – they are quite normal to have and not harmful, even if they are disturbing sometimes. What you can control is your reaction to them though, but accepting that dreams are normal, and doing the relaxation exercises to help yourself not get stressed by them.
      Regards
      Ethan

  • Hi I’m Amaree, for me I either sleep and sleep for half or all of the next day, or I don’t sleep at all and resort to looking up tips. Do you have any other suggestion for falling asleep within seconds??

    • Hi Amaree
      Thanks for your comment. The problem is that it’s very uncommon to fall asleep that quickly – the normal time is anything up to 30 minutes. So perhaps it’s useful to take the pressure off yourself to fall asleep so quickly, and relax in bed instead. You can try these techniques, but it’s also sometimes good to just focus on how soft, comfortable and nice the bed feels and enjoy that feeling rather than expecting to fall asleep. That shift in focus can sometimes be a big help!
      And if it’s more tips you want, I definitely recommend reading my article about how I personally deal with insomnia, in which I share my top tips..
      Regards
      Ethan

  • 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 hope you have found help to sleep by now Irina. Do the breathing techniques help relax you? I noticed you didn’t get a reply from Ethan so wanted to say hi.x

      • Jenna your comment drew my attention to the previous one (thanks for joining in!), which somehow escaped me. I’m sorry I didn’t reply to you Irina, and I hope you sleep problems are no longer!
        Regards
        Ethan

  • 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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