Most people experience sleep issues at some point in their lives. This might be problems getting to sleep or waking in the night and not being able to get back to sleep. Often these sleep issues resolve after a few weeks but it’s helpful to have a few strategies you can use during these times of sleeplessness.
Sleep issues are commonly triggered by stress or anxiety, change or uncertainty. Under these conditions, the body’s stress response is activated. This leads to a number of bodily changes controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, including increased heart rate, rapid and shallow breathing, and muscle tension. To sleep, you need the opposite state. This is known as the relaxation response, which is controlled by the parasympathetic nervous system. This is when your heart rate slows down, your breathing becomes deeper and your muscles relax.
Relaxation techniques are designed to help switch on the relaxation response. By doing so, the body and mind is in a much better state to drift off to sleep.
Often called diaphragmatic breathing or belly breathing, this simple exercise can be used in its own right or as a foundation for other more complex techniques. Start by putting one hand on your chest and one on your belly. Notice how you are breathing and which hand moves: is it the one on the chest, the one on the belly or both? If you are stressed, you may notice you breathe more from the chest, but you can also get into the habit of shallow breathing and do it even when you are not stressed. Or you may notice your hand on your belly moves more which normally indicates you are relaxed.
Now imagine a balloon in your belly which you need to fill up with your breath. When you do this, the neck of the balloon will not expand much so your chest will stay relatively still. Your belly however, will rise and fall as the balloon inflates then deflates.
Aim to breathe out for a little longer than the inbreath and squeeze all the old air out using your abdominal muscles. Counting the breath can help keep it regular and also to stay focused on the exercise. If you count in your head, you will block your working memory system which will reduce any racing thoughts. Pick the numbers that suit you: maybe four, five or six seconds in, then five or six seconds out. Do this for a few minutes. With practice, you will notice you feel calmer both physically and mentally.
This exercise involves systematically tensing then relaxing different muscle groups around the body. This makes you more aware of where and when you are holding tension in your body, for example during the stress response, and then how to switch off that tension.
Start by taking some slow, regular, deep breaths for a few minutes to begin your relaxation. You can use the word ‘relax’ on the outbreath. After a few minutes, turn your attention to your face. First tense up the muscles by clenching your jaw and closing your eyes tightly. When you do this pay attention to the muscles around your eyes, your cheeks, your mouth and your whole face. Notice the tension in these areas, hold it for about 8-10 seconds, then relax and switch off the tension. Now pay attention to how these muscles feel when they are relaxed. Notice how there is now no tension, the muscles feel comfortable and heavy. Spend about 20 seconds in this relaxed state. You can use your deep breathing to deepen the relaxation.
Next move onto the shoulders and repeat the sequence of tensing and relaxing by pulling your shoulders up towards your ears. Then do the same with your hands by making fists and finally your legs by flexing your feet up towards your head and pushing your calf muscles downwards. Remember your breathing, which can help you to relax.
Finally spend some time being aware of your whole body, noticing any areas that haven’t fully relaxed. Imagine any tension leaving that area, like a stream flowing out of your body, out through your toes or finger tips.
This technique involves remembering a peaceful place you have been to in the past. Again, it’s helpful to start with some deep breathing for a few minutes. Then recall your peaceful place, maybe a beach, a mountain scene or somewhere in nature. Use all your senses to bring your image alive: remember exactly what you could see, what you could hear, anything you could taste or smell. Recall the temperature, what you touched and how that felt, what you were wearing. Spend a few moments on each sense.
Mindfulness exercises are not actually relaxation exercises. Mindfulness involves being aware of the present moment without judgement. This can lead to a relaxed state as you are less focused on worries and negative thoughts. There are masses of mindfulness resources available on the internet.
As a simple exercise to try, start by paying attention to your breath. Notice what happens as you breathe in and when you breathe out. Pay attention to the muscles that tense and relax, the air that comes into your body and out of your body. You can count your breath if you like to stay focused.
Then focus on one sense at a time, listing what you notice. Run through any sights (or images or colours behind your eyes if closed), sounds, smells, lingering tastes in your mouth. Then notice what your body is in contact with: the feel of your clothes against your skin, the feel of the air, your weight on the chair or bed, your feet against the floor.
Find the exercises that work best for you. If you don’t get on with one, try another.
If your mind wonders off, just acknowledge this has happened and bring your attention back to the exercise.
These exercises need some practice like any skill you acquire. Try them in the day or evening, so you are familiar with the exercises if you need them in the night.
It’s best to practise them out of bed initially to become familiar with the feeling of relaxation. Remember if you do them in bed, you are doing these exercises to relax, not to force yourself to sleep. If you are relaxed, you are in a better position for sleep. If you get frustrated because you feel the exercises are “not working,” stop and do something else to relax your mind and body.
Christabel Majendie August 2022.
Christabel is a Bristol based sleep therapist and consultant, specialising in helping individuals experiencing a wide range of sleep problems. For more information on her work you can visit her website.
Christabel is not a brand ambassador and does not endorse any product of Sleep Well Drinks Limited.