We’ve all been there before. Laying in bed with your eyes shut trying to sleep but stressing out that you can’t fall asleep. The stress builds up and ends up adding to your insomnia. It’s too late to buy a sleep product or undo any bad habits that could have led to your trouble falling asleep, but we have a couple of quick and easy methods you can use to get some shuteye or get bad to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night.
There are a few factors in the way you breathe that can either calm you or excite your nervous system which would keep you awake. The main factors would be your rate of breathing and the depth of your breath.
To calm your nervous system, you should be focusing on taking slower and deeper breaths. There are two great techniques that I recommend that address both of these areas very well.
This particular trick is part of Navy SEAL training to teach soldiers how to almost immediately calm themselves down. If this can lower the stress and anxiety levels of a SEAL in ice-cold water, it should work well for most people laying in a comfortable bed.
Box Breathing Process:
- Start with one long deep breath in, filling your lungs. Hold for a 2-4 second count. Then release the full breath.
- Breathe in for a full 4-second count through your nose
- Hold your breath for 4 seconds*
- Breathe out for 4 seconds from your mouth
- Hold your empty breath for 4 seconds
- Repeat steps 2-5 for as long as it takes to feel the stress wash away
*When you hold your breath, don’t do it in a way that feels uncomfortable. A common reflex when holding your breath is to tense up. Simply leave the air in your lungs and aim for an open feeling around your chest.
You can do this any time of the day that you’re feeling exceptionally stressed out, not just when you’re trying to fall asleep.
This is called “box” breathing because you can use a visualization of a box in your mind to help keep the pace. Picture a square in your head, breathing in 4 seconds while tracing one side of the box, holding for 4 seconds tracing another, and so on.
Use box breathing when you feel that your sleep issues are being brought on by higher stress or anxiety.
4-7-8 Breathing Technique
There is good reason that this is also known as “relaxing breath.” This technique was developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, founder and director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. Like the box breathing technique, this can significantly calm your mind and body.
4-7-8 Breathing Process:
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight. This is one breath.
- Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Personally, I’ve been able to fall asleep in 1-2 minutes trying this out at times.
If you feel you need a timer or some guided instructions, there is a free guided sleep meditation on Kevin Rose’s Oak Meditation app. Something they added to Dr. Weil’s strategy is a mantra of sorts to repeat until you fall asleep if you’re still awake after the breathing exercise...“my day is over, and it’s time to rest.” It just seems to work.
This can help you if you are feeling stressful, but this might be better used than the box technique when you are feeling calm, but need an extra push to fall asleep.
Additional Breathing Tips for Sleep
When you take your breaths, try and breathe using your diaphragm and not your lungs. The easiest way to do this is to focus on letting your stomach rise and fall with each breath rather than your chest. Chest breathing limits you to shorter and shallower breaths that can keep your heart rate up.
Continue to count your breaths after doing any breathing technique. This can help keep you mindful of your breathing patterns to continue slower, deeper breaths. Counting your breaths also gives you something to focus rather than the nighttime thoughts that race through your head at night. Try counting to 10 and alternating counting back from 10 until you’re asleep. 1 count for breathing in, 1 count for breathing out.
Release your stress with each breath. This is something you mentally do that has an immediate physical effect. As you slowly release each breath, imagine the stresses of your day leaving with it. You might just feel yourself melting into your bed.
Relaxing Your Muscles
You might not realize it, but you may be a lot more wound up than you thought. You can be physically holding onto stress in so many different parts of your body that keep you on edge and awake through the night.
Performing a full-body scan is a meditative practice that can help you recognize where you’re unknowingly tense. Noticing these unrelaxed areas makes it easier to let them go and immediately feel a sense of calm.
Performing a Body Scan for Sleep
There are some more advanced versions of a body scan, but the basics here can definitely help. If you want an even more relaxing variation, there a plenty of great guided body scans on YouTube and meditation apps like Calm and Headspace.
- Find a relaxed position where you feel comfortable.
- Take several deep breaths in, and out.
- Starting with your feet, become aware of your toes. Linger on the feeling of each toe for a few moments. Try to notice any sensations as you focus on each.
- If you feel any pain or tension, breathe in while focusing on it, and breathe out, releasing the stress.
- Focus on leaving the toes relaxed and move to the rest of your foot
- Continue the process over your entire body from your feet to the top of your head, making sure to let go of any tension as you work your way up.
If you make it to the top of your head without falling drowsing off, your entire body should be completely relaxed and you should be asleep in no time. If you’re relaxed and not falling asleep, this could be a perfect time to do the 4-7-8 breathwork.
Some common areas you might not realize you are holding stress while performing a body scan:
- Partly clenched fists
- Your chest as you squeeze your arms towards your body
- Your neck if you are pressing your head down into your pillow
- Your jaw, especially if you are stressing
- Furrowed eyebrows, especially if you are anxiously pushing your eyes shut
These are just a couple of quick ways to fall asleep at night, or even during the day for a nap. Check out our natural sleep remedies article for more tips on getting better sleep if you want to plan for optimal sleep health.