7 Relaxation Techniques for Better Sleep
Having trouble falling asleep? This is a common problem many of us face, and it’s often due to stress or anxiety. Luckily, there are many ways to help yourself drift off, so let’s take a look at some of the best relaxation techniques for sleep.
Sleep relaxation techniques
- Breathing exercises
- Practicing mindfulness
- Visualisation exercises
- Progressive muscle relaxation
- Meditative movement
Why does stress affect sleep?
After a stressful day, many of us find ourselves tossing and turning at night, unable to fall asleep. This is very common, as stress and sleep can negatively impact one another.
This is because the body activates its natural stress response that makes us feel more alert, as well as triggering physical changes, such as an increased heart rate1. Other effects stress can have on the body include:
- Taut and tense muscles
- Rapid breathing
- Elevated blood pressure
- Increased cortisol production (e.g. the stress hormone)
Unsurprisingly, when this stress response is activated, falling (and staying) asleep is extremely challenging. This is also due to the fact that stress can have a psychological impact as well, even if the physical symptoms aren’t there, or have passed. Many of those with insomnia are also stressed, sometimes it can be difficult to know which caused what; poor sleep can lead to stress and vice versa.
So, what can be done?
Relaxation techniques for sleep
Frequent sleepless nights, or poor quality sleep, can be damaging to health and mental wellbeing, so it’s important to deal with the problem. Luckily, there are many science-backed techniques to try to help you drift off more easily at night.
Meditation can be great for sleep, helping you let go of any negative thoughts running through your head and keeping you awake.
Meditating before bed can be beneficial, as it activates parts of the brain that control sleep, as well as:
- Reducing heart rate
- Decreasing blood pressure
- Increasing melatonin (the sleep hormone)3
The basic steps involve:
- Lie or sit down in a quiet space
- Close your eyes
- Breathe slowly
- Focus on your breathing
- If any other thought pops up, refocus on your breathing
Try to do it for at least 5 minutes before bed, before slowly building it up to around 20.
2. Breathing exercises
While breathing is a key part of meditation, there are many different types of exercises you can do. The benefit of them is that they activate your body’s natural relaxation response. If you find yourself tossing and turning at night, try taking 10 deep breaths. Even doing just this can help you unwind.
- Let your breath flow deep into your belly (as much as is comfortable)
- Try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth
- Breathe in gently and regularly
- Some people find it helpful to count, for example from 1 to 5
● Breathe out gently
● Keep going for 3 -5 minutes4
3. Practicing mindfulness
Mindfulness is the name many people give to the practice of paying more attention to the present moment, your own thoughts and feelings, and the world around you. It can improve mental wellbeing.
An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and what they experience, as well as being aware of thoughts and feelings as they happen in the moment. Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over – and realise certain ‘mental events’ do not control us5.
This can help relieve stress and anxiety, and in turn, help us to sleep better. It’s not for everyone, but many have found it beneficial: not just for sleep but in other areas of life, including improved mood.
4. Visualisation exercises
If none of the above are for you, you could give visualisation exercises a go. These involve conjuring mental images to create a sense of wellbeing, which can reduce stress and help you fall asleep.
For example, you could try colour breathing, which is where you think of a positive feeling and assign it a colour. Close your eyes and breathe slowly, visualising your chosen colour and thinking about what it represents to you. With each inhale, picture the desired colour slowly washing over your body from head to toe, including your fingers and toes. Imagine any unwanted emotions draining out of your body when you exhale, replacing them with your chosen color when you inhale6.
Visualisation exercises have other benefits other than improved sleep, including:
- Pain relief
- Relief of anxiety and depression
- Greater emotional wellness
- Improved ability to cope with stress
5. Progressive muscle relaxation
It’s harder to be tense if your muscles are relaxed, or at least that’s what progressive muscle relaxation is based on. It involves tensing and relaxing 16 different muscle groups, one by one. Tense a group of muscles as you breathe in, and relax them as you breathe out. Lie on a bed to try the technique.
Here’s what activity to do based on each muscle group:
- Hands – clench them
- Wrists and forearms – extend the forearms, and bend your hands back at the wrist
- Biceps and upper arms – clench your hands into fists, bend your arms at the elbows, and flex your biceps
- Shoulders – shrug them
- Forehead – wrinkle into a deep frown
- Around the eyes – squeeze your eyes shut as tightly as you can
- Cheeks – smile as widely as you can
- Around the mouth – press your lips tightly together
- Back of the neck – press the back of your head against the bed
- Front of the neck – touch your chin to your chest
- Chest – take a deep breath, holding it for 4 to 10 seconds
- Back – arch your back up and away from the floor or chair
- Stomach – suck it in tightly
- Hips and buttocks – squeeze your buttocks tightly together
- Thighs – clench them hard
- Lower legs – Point your toes toward your face, before pointing them away, and curling them down7
After carrying out progressive muscle relaxation or something similar, many choose to self-hypnotise. Self-hypnosis involves becoming highly focused and absorbed in the experience, while giving yourself positive suggestions and affirmations to help reach the goal of falling asleep8. Ensure you’re reassuring and confident.
7. Meditative Movement
Meditative movement combines meditation with gentle physical movement. For example, yoga is a type of meditative movement, as is tai chi. Yoga can be beneficial in managing sleep problems, as well as stress management9. This can, in turn, help improve sleep quality and duration, while helping you drift off more easily.
Relieving Night Time Stress
Be patient with yourself, it can take time to get to grips with relaxation exercises, such as meditation. But, sleep is a vital part of self-care, so if you’re not getting enough, dealing with your stress can be a good start. Everyone can have a bad night’s sleep, but frequent nights spent tossing and turning will wreak havoc on your physical and mental wellbeing. A little relaxation can go a long way!
- Relaxation Exercises to Help Fall Asleep – Sleep Foundation
- Stress effects on the body – APA
- 3 Ways to Meditate for Better Sleep – Healthline
- Breathing exercises for stress – NHS
- Mindfulness – NHS
- 5 Visualization Techniques to Add to Your Meditation Practice – Healthline
- Stress Management: Doing Progressive Muscle Relaxation – Michigan Medicine
- Self Hypnosis: What It Is & How to Do It – Mindset Health
- How to Relieve Stress for Bedtime – Sleep Foundation