Last updated on: February 12, 2018 By Ethan Green
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, or just before you go to bed.
But you can also do them when you’re already lying in bed, or if you wake up in the night and can’t go back 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 great video talking your 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 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 some mindfulness techniques.
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.