Bedtime – the brain’s seemingly perfect time of day to contemplate every life detail, think through worst-case scenarios, and work through any and every other reflection that you pushed to the back of your mind during the day.
All of us experience sleeplessness at some point in our lives, most often because stress or difficult life events leave our minds, and subsequently our bodies, tense and unable to relax into sleep. And while a bit of restless sleep might be a minor inconvenience to those afflicted once in a blue moon, others experience sleeplessness on a more regular basis and truly feel the results.
The link between anxiety and sleeplessness is well studied, and the findings are both intuitive and terrifying. Anxiety and insomnia can disrupt circadian rhythms, cause more stress and anxiety, and wreak havoc via a host of other physical and mental health problems including elevated heart rates, blood pressure, and stress hormones.
While breaking out of your no-sleep cycle might feel like it requires a total life overhaul, there are some simple yet effective techniques you should try before quitting your job or begging your doctor for a prescription for sleeping pills. Using various relaxation techniques, the mind and body can be trained into a sleep schedule come night time, leaving you to enjoy the restful nights you deserve.
How do relaxation techniques work?
A technique first credited to Dr. Herbert Benson, a Harvard Medical School physician in the 1970s, the relaxation technique is meant to elicit a physical state of deep rest — the opposite of the body’s stress response. Years of research have shown results in reducing stress and anxiety using relaxation techniques, as well as sleeping longer at night, having more uninterrupted sleep, and falling asleep somewhat more quickly.
Relaxation techniques work by encouraging the body’s natural relaxation response in order to achieve both mental and physical relaxation. The techniques reduce physical tension by interrupting the thought processes that are preventing you from going to sleep, and offer a great way to help you naturally manage your stress, as well as cope with everyday life-events and stresses. While a substantial amount of research has been done to show that these techniques are perfectly safe for most healthy people, people with serious physical or mental health problems should first discuss relaxation techniques with their health care provider.
Most recently, scientists have begun to elucidate the pathways through which these techniques work to improve sleep. Recent Harvard research suggests that practicing relaxation responses can lead to genomic activity changes. In the study, researchers looked at how the relaxation response affected each of the body’s tens of thousands of individual genes, and found that those who regularly used the relaxation response induced anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory changes that counteract the effects of stress on the body, as compared to control subjects.
Before You Start… A Note About Good Sleep Hygiene
While relaxation techniques can help you achieve the rest you need when you’re feeling unusually stressed or anxious, there are other important (yet simple) habits that should become part of your routine to ensure that you’re giving your body and mind the best chance to fall asleep quickly. The following set of ‘sleep hygiene’ habits can have an important and positive effect:
- Don’t drink alcohol, coffee, or tea four to six hours before your bedtime. These substances will keep your body and mind wired, so give your body time enough time for these side effects to pass before trying to go to sleep.
- Avoid smoking or other nicotine products before bedtime or during the night. Nicotine is a stimulant, and can substantially affect your sleeping patterns if you consume it before bedtime. Studies have also shown that smoking can change your natural circadian rhythm.
- Avoid heavy meals or spicy foods before going to bed. Good sleep hygiene calls for avoiding food at least three hours before getting into bed. Heavy or spicy foods can cause irritation in the upper digestive tract, leading to indigestion and heartburn, which may worsen when you lay down to go to bed.
- Get your exercise in, but not right before going to bed. Exercising early in the day can help tire your body, release endorphins, and help you get to sleep faster, but exercising also temporarily elevates your heart rate and raises your core body temperature, two things that are counterproductive if you’re trying to sleep. Leave a four to six-hour window between your workout and your bedtime.
- Avoid napping during the day. Napping more than 30 minutes can upset your sleep cycle and mess with your metabolism. Work through your drowsiness if you can, and if you absolutely must nap, try to limit it to 30 minutes.
- Establish a regular sleep routine. Having a regular sleep time and routine can help your body recognize and prepare for sleep when it’s that time to go to bed. If possible, establish a routine before bed – whether that be taking a warm shower or bath, doing light stretches or yoga, or reading a book – and try to keep to it.
5 Relaxation Techniques to Try
Now that you’ve ensured that your practices and habits are optimal for a good night’s rest, here are some relaxation techniques to try when you still just can’t fall asleep.
1. Progressive muscle relaxation
This technique involves tensing groups of muscles from the top of the head to the bottom of the foot progressively, and then consciously relaxing them again. The technique is easy to learn and helps you lower your body’s muscle tension and stress levels, relaxing you when you are feeling anxious.
The technique requires just 10-15 minutes a day. First, find a quiet and comfortable place. As you breath in, tense the muscles at the top of your head, and relax them as you breath out. Do this for every muscle group until you get to your toes, and give yourself around 5 seconds before your mind and body leave the practice.
Empirical, peer-reviewed evidence supports this technique for use in reducing tension headaches, insomnia, and even for chronic pain management.
2. Guided Imagery
Guided Imagery uses the power of your imagination to elicit physical responses. It is a mind-body technique that has been shown to reduce stress and promote sleep by imagining the details of a safe, comfortable, and happy place or experience.
To relax using visualisation, try to incorporate as many senses as you can – thinking about the smell, touch, sight, and sound of the visualisation. For example, if you imagine walking through a grassy field barefoot, think about the feeling of grass in your feet, the smell of dew in the air, the breeze on your face or the sun on your skin. It is best to practice this technique with your eyes closed, in a quiet space and comfortable position. Importantly, think about the most positive and comforting scene possible. Instructor-led courses for guided imagery can also be found, as well as scripts and recordings for different visualisations being widely available for free online.
Many robust scientific studies have been done to look at the effect of guided imagery. Overall, studies suggest that guided imagery can both reduce stress and elevate the immune system, and can even improve pain management in patients with cancer and fibromyalgia. With so much to gain and virtually nothing to lose, who wouldn’t want to try this powerful technique?
3. Breathing techniques
Deep breathing techniques have been used for thousands of years to elicit a relaxation response. This technique is the most intuitive of the relaxation techniques – if you think about the moments right before you fall asleep or right when you wake up, you’ll realise that your breathing is slow and deep. Indeed, deep breathing is one of the best ways to lower stress in the body. When we breathe deeply, we are sending a message to our brain, which then sends a corresponding message to the body, to calm down and relax.
Best of all, deep breathing is intuitively learned and can be done in any situation. There are many types of breathing exercises, the simplest of which might be belly breathing. Lying flat or sitting in a comfortable position, put one hand on your belly, just below your ribs, and another hand on your chest. Take a deep breath through the nose, and feel your belly push your hand out. Breathe out through pursed lips and feel your belly move in. Repeat five to ten times.
Deep breathing is highly effective at managing stress and promoting relaxation on its own – so much so that it is a common feature in several other relaxation techniques. By encouraging full oxygen exchange, this technique works to slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure – and thus allows you to control your anxiety, relax, and get to sleep.
4. Autogenic training (AT)
Autogenic training (AT) is probably the least used and known technique of this list, is nonetheless an effective and accessible method to reduce stress and improve sleep. AT uses visual imagination and verbal exercises to focus the mind on specific physical sensations, eventually teaching the body to respond to your verbal commands. Once you master the technique, you should be able to ‘tell’ your body to relax and get to sleep.
So how exactly does the technique work? AT consists of six main exercises that make the body feel warm, heavy, and relaxed. For each exercise, you get into a simple and comfortable posture and use your visual imagination as well as repetitive verbal cues to relax the body in a specific way. It is thought that mechanism through which it works is similar to hypnosis, in that the exercises allow you to more deeply control communication between the mind and body so that you may influence bodily reactions that cannot usually be controlled.
These exercises can either be taught by an instructor, or learnt on your own through online and written resources. These exercises are most effective when practiced regularly, but be warned that progress will take time; expect at least 4-6 months to master all six exercises.
Biofeedback, in a way similar to AT and guided imagery, uses a ‘mind over matter’ approach – it uses your thoughts to control involuntary actions or reactions of your body. The technique works by tracking information from your body like breathing, heart rate, sweating, body temperature, and sleep stages in order to make you aware of stress and allow you to make small changes in response, allowing you to relax both physically and mentally. When you’re alerted to the stress response, other relaxation techniques like deep breathing can be used to help you combat the feelings of stress and anxiety. This is especially useful for those who struggle with knowing whether they are feeling more stressed or anxious than what is considered normal.
Biofeedback techniques have gained steam over the last few years, and as a result there are increasing numbers of wearable devices, like the Spire, that can deliver information about your stress levels and emotions as measured through biofeedback. While the precise physiological mechanisms behind biofeedback are not fully understood, research shows that biofeedback promotes relaxation and can help relieve a number of other conditions related to stress, as well as get you to sleep faster.