Get Better Sleep With 5 Relaxation Techniques That Actually Work

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Get Better Sleep With 5 Relaxation Techniques That Actually Work
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Alright, we’ll say it: Getting enough quality sleep each night is an underrated health goal. It’s vital to productivity, mental clarity, healthy weight management, and so much more. 

But what if you can’t sleep? Maybe you’re kept up at night by anxiety and spinning thoughts. Maybe you lack a consistent bedtime routine. Maybe you’re nervous about an upcoming presentation or job interview. Maybe you just haven’t thought much about sleep hygiene. Or maybe the fact that you’re awake… again… is stressing you out.    

Whatever your reasons for lacking adequate shuteye, you’ve come to the right place! If you’re looking for drug- and supplement-free ways to fall asleep — and stay asleep — try these expert-recommended relaxation techniques tonight. 

Why Consistent Quality Sleep Is Vital to Good Health

Get Better Sleep With 5 Relaxation Techniques That Actually Work
Source: Ketut Subiyanto

Each one of us has a “sleep need,” or an amount of sleep we need each night to function optimally. This need is determined by genetics, and can vary from person to person. So what’s “enough” sleep for you might not be enough for your partner or best friend.

When we don’t meet our sleep needs, we can fall into sleep debt. 

“Sleep debt is more than just a minor inconvenience,” explains Chester Wu, MD, who is double board-certified in psychiatry and sleep medicine. “It can torpedo our emotional, physical, and mental health, making us more susceptible to various diseases, depression and anxiety, and interpersonal challenges. It also adversely affects our energy and cognitive performance.” 

Sleep deprivation can have an impact on your weight, too. It can make you hungrier, increase your cravings, and deregulate your appetite. And at the same time, it negatively impacts your self-control so it’s harder to resist certain foods. 

Plus, your energy levels and motivation take a hit, making it less likely you’ll show up for your workouts.

Finally, sleep deprivation can impact your metabolism, causing your body to store more fat, even if you’re not eating more calories. 

“Research has found resting metabolic rate — the rate your body burns calories while resting, the biggest part of how many calories you burn a day — is significantly lower after just a few nights of insufficient sleep,” adds Dr. Wu.

So how do you avoid these health impacts, and get enough sleep? It might be simpler than you think! Let’s walk through some easy, expert-backed relaxation techniques that can help you fall asleep — and stay asleep.

1. Autogenic Training (AT) 

What it is 

Autogenic Training (AT) is a self-guided relaxation technique where you tap into sensations like heaviness and warmth throughout the body. It’s kind of like a guided meditation that helps relax your body to prepare for sleep. 

“Through this process, you enter a ‘pre-sleep’ state that induces a relaxation response,” explains Dr. Wu.

It’s got powerful science behind it, too. It’s proven to be effective for reducing stress and anxiety, improving functional sleep disorders, and it may even help manage chronic pain. AT also trains the body to be more efficient at regulating unconscious functions like your breath and heart rate.

How to do it

  1. Get in a comfortable position, and start by taking a few focused breaths. 

  2. Say to yourself, “I am completely calm.”

  3. Direct your focus to your arms, noticing any sensations that are present.

  4. Say to yourself, “My arms are heavy.” Repeat four times.

  5. Say to yourself, “I am completely calm.”

  6. Say to yourself, “My arms are warm.” Repeat four times.

  7. Say to yourself, “I am completely calm.”

  8. Direct your focus to your legs, noticing any sensations that are present.

  9. Say to yourself, “My legs are heavy.” Repeat four times.

  10. Say to yourself, “I am completely calm.”

  11. Say to yourself, “My legs are warm.” Repeat four times.

  12. Say to yourself, “I am completely calm.” 

  13. Direct your focus to your heart, noticing any sensations that are present.

  14. Say to yourself, “My heart is calm and slow.” Repeat four times.

  15. Say to yourself, “I am completely calm.”

  16. Direct your focus to your breath, noticing any sensations that are present. 

  17. Say to yourself, “My breath is calm and steady.” Repeat four times.

  18. Say to yourself, “I am completely calm.”

  19. Direct your focus to your stomach, noticing any sensations that are present.

  20. Say to yourself, “My stomach is soft and warm.” Repeat four times.

  21. Say to yourself, “I am completely calm.”

  22. Direct your focus to your forehead, noticing any sensations that are present.

  23. Say to yourself, “My forehead is cool and relaxed.” Repeat four times.

  24. Say to yourself, “I am completely calm.”

  25. Sleep deeply.

Pro tip

With so many instructions and repetitions, practicing AT can be a little bit overwhelming at first. But not to worry, you can always use a guided version (like this awesome YouTube video) until you get more comfortable with the process.

2. Diaphragmatic Breathing

Get Better Sleep With 5 Relaxation Techniques That Actually Work
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What it is 

Diaphragmatic breathing, also called belly breathing, is one of the most effective tools out there for stress relief, relaxation, and sleep. The best part? It requires zero skill. You can do it anytime, without practice.

“This is a way of breathing where we extend the abdomen on the inhale, almost as if you’re filling a balloon in the belly with air as you breathe in. Really engaging the diaphragm muscle in this way triggers that relaxation response in the body,” shares Teague O’Malley, certified meditation teacher of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Cultivating Emotional Balance (CEB), and The Breathing Class programs.

When we’re stressed or dealing with racing thoughts, it can activate our sympathetic nervous system. This makes us feel as though there’s a threat in front of us. Our breathing gets shallow, our heart rate picks up, and it becomes even harder to sleep. 

With diaphragmatic breathing, we can slow everything down, activating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for bringing our bodily systems back to neutral after stress.

“Instead of fight or flight, we can use breath to shift into what we call rest and digest,” says O’Malley. “It allows the heartbeat to slow down. The blood pressure levels out, and our breathing becomes deeper. That all comes together to really help get into that deeper sleep.”

Diaphragmatic breathing is incredibly simple and effective. It encourages full oxygen exchange, which can increase your blood oxygen, slow your heart rate, and stabilize your blood pressure. It can also help break anxious thought patterns that keep you awake at night. And finally, research has shown that diaphragmatic breathing is effective in treating PTSD, anxiety, phobias, and other mental health conditions.

How to do it

Get in a comfortable position, sitting or lying down. Put one hand on your belly, and one hand on your chest. 

Breathe deeply into the belly, feeling your belly push your hand away from the body. As you breathe out, feel your belly contract. 

“I call diaphragmatic breathing the 911 practice. When you need something that’s going to help you in the moment right now, the diaphragmatic breathing is one of the best go-to’s to have in your toolkit,” adds O’Malley. 

He often teaches the practice to parents with babies in the NICU. All of the stress, fear, and uncertainty can keep the worried parents awake at night. But with diaphragmatic breathing, O’Malley says his students find a supportive practice that helps them get vital rest, even during a stressful time.  

Diaphragmatic breathing can be practiced at any time for stress relief, and can be used to fall asleep, or get you back to sleep when you wake in the night.

Pro tip

Looking for a variation to try? Lie on your stomach and as you breathe into the diaphragm, push your belly into the bed.

Or, you can try box breathing: 

  1. Breathe in for a four count.

  2. Hold your breath for a four count.

  3. Exhale for a four count.

  4. Hold your breath for a four count.

  5. Repeat as necessary.

3. 4-7-8 Breathing 

What it is 

4-7-8 breathing is a type of diaphragmatic breathing that utilizes counting and focused attention. Similar to box breathing and regular diaphragmatic breathing, 4-7-8 breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and relaxes your body.

Because it requires focused attention and deep breathing, 4-7-8 breathing tends to soothe anxious thoughts and melt worries away. 

How to do it

Breathe in for a count of four. Hold for a count of seven. Slowly exhale for a count of eight. 

That’s it! Simple, right? This breathing exercise is also extremely effective. 

“What science has shown is that lengthening the exhale like this helps calm the nervous system. It activates a relaxation response in the body that can really help us drift into sleep,” explains O’Malley.

This technique can be used for soothing anxiety, falling asleep, and getting back to sleep after you wake up.

Pro tip

Take your 4-7-8 breathing to the next level by practicing throughout the day. This can help you relax easier when it comes time to wind down. In fact, the more we practice diaphragmatic breathing, the easier it is for our body to relax at night. And that can have a big impact on our sleep.

“There’s a cumulative effect,” explains O’Malley. “We know that if we’re engaging that parasympathetic nervous system throughout the day, when it comes time to sleep, we’re not trying to push this giant boulder up the mountain at night.”

4. Mindful Breathing

What it is 

Mindful breathing is simply paying attention to your breath. It can help interrupt the ruminations that prevent us from falling asleep. O’Malley says he practices this technique a lot with stressed out executives who can’t seem to switch off at night. 

“Mindfulness of breath is helpful for students that have a busy mind and can’t seem to slow that down to sleep,” he shares. That also makes it a good technique for busy working parents.

How to do it

Draw awareness to the breath, without trying to change or manipulate it. Bring all your attention to the sensations and the feelings of the breath. You can set a timer and practice this for five to 20 minutes, or you can simply “free” practice mindful breathing until you feel calm and relaxed.

Pro tip

Try counting after every exhale. This gives your mind something to anchor to, and interrupts the cycle of thinking and feeling emotions. 

We should also note that this is another great technique to practice throughout the day. Plus, you can do it in the smallest of moments, such as taking one mindful breath before heading into your afternoon meeting. 

5. Brain Dump

What it is 

If you’re kept up at night by spinning or ruminating thoughts, consider scheduling 30 minutes of “worry time” into your day. It might seem counterintuitive to give space to your anxiety, but brain dumping can allow you to finally release the thoughts from your mind. 

“The majority of my clients have some degree of anxiety or stress,” explains Dr. Wu. “And rather than allowing the mind to ruminate endlessly, it can be helpful to just intentfully have an ‘anxiety time’ and write down their thoughts and to-do list.” 

How to do it

Set a timer for 30 minutes and grab a paper and pen. Write down your anxious thoughts stream of consciousness without stopping. Whatever you need to get out of your brain within that time, get it out. 

Don’t forget to set aside at least five minutes to make a to-do list of all the things you need to do in the next day or two. 

Pro tip

You don’t need 30 minutes a day to brain dump. Even just spending five minutes writing a to-do list in the evening is shown to make falling asleep easier.

Wrapping up

Get Better Sleep With 5 Relaxation Techniques That Actually Work
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With busy lives and endless to-do’s, it can be challenging to meet our sleep needs. But it’s more than worth it, especially since sleep deprivation can lead to all kinds of health issues, not to mention weight gain. 

By using research-backed relaxation techniques like Autogenic Training (AT), diaphragmatic breathing, and brain dumping, we can tell our bodies it’s time to take things down a notch and rest. Getting enough quality sleep is possible with the right toolbox!