Have you tried everything to try to go to sleep at night? Apps? Special tea? Daylight lamps? Focusing on some simple breathing exercises for sleep could be just what you need to help you settle down after a busy day.
You’ve had a crazy day at work and you feel exhausted – it’s time to hit the hay. You get into bed but your mind is still racing. You toss and turn as the incessant chatter in your head reminds you about everything that happened today or all the things you need to do tomorrow. Even though your body feels tired, for some reason your mind just won’t shut off. Does this sound like a familiar story? If it does, you have your autonomic nervous system (ANS) to thank.
The ANS regulates many of our unconscious bodily functions such as heart rate, digestion, respiratory rate, urination and hormone production. It’s also responsible for what’s commonly referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ response where our bodies go into a state of action, ready to run away from or fight a perceived threat. This response has been useful for centuries when we’ve had to fend for our lives against lions, tigers and bears. But for most of us in this modern society, our lives aren’t often under threat. So you’d think we’d never need to go into this ‘fight or flight’ response and would just live our days in a blissful state of peace, right?
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. “Our brains are running on archaic software that’s designed to keep us alive. So although we don’t need to watch out for wildlife running down the street, our brains will always find something to perceive as a threat,” says Breathwork expert Richie Bostock. “Today, the new and perhaps totally unconscious threats to our survival are what we experience day to day, including our careers, finances, relationships and social perceptions. The constant barrage of notifications from our phones and computers can add to this aroused response from your nervous system.”
The big problem is that these threats are ever present, and if left unchecked will cause you to always operate from this state of action. The body is excellent at developing habits, so if you’re in action mode all day every day, your physical systems will be very good at staying in that mode – which means that even once your head has hit the pillow, your body won’t make it easy for you to switch off, no matter how comfortable your bed is.
So how can you use breathing to help you relax? You need a way to be able to calm your nervous system, shifting it from a state of high arousal to rest and relaxation. “Luckily, nature has given us a human design feature that can help us do this – our breath!” Richie says. “Breathing is the only system in the body that’s both automatic and also under our control. This is no accident. The way we breathe affects every function in the body because it’s so closely linked to our neurology. One of the largest nerves in the ANS is called the vagus nerve.
“Vagal tone is a measure of the activity of this nerve – the higher the vagal tone, the more your body is in a state of rest. The fastest and easiest way to increase your vagal tone is to change the way you breathe. Understanding how your breathing affects your physiology is critical if you want to be able relax effectively. Learn how to breathe with purpose.”
Transformational Breath Facilitator and yoga teacher Aimee Hartley struggled to sleep well for many years. “Sleeping well is a superpower and, for a large proportion of my life, I felt like I was a ’40-winks wonder-woman’,” she says. “It was my only gift, which was sadly snatched from me after the birth of my first (and second) child.
“I suddenly suffered bouts of insomnia and restless nights became the norm. I felt that I had entered a dark land, where my nights were overactive and I wandered through my days in a semi-narcoleptic state.”
Those sleepless nights inspired Aimee to experiment with different breathing techniques to ease her insomnia. Aimee shares some easy sleep breathing exercises to add to your nighttime routine – read on to some breathing exercises for sleep from Richie and Aimee. They’re all easy to follow and you can test them out to find the ones that work for you.
Journalling is another great way to clear your mind at bedtime. Take a look at our pick of the best mindfulness journals to help prepare you for sleep. If too much light is getting into your bedroom, a sleep mask may help – check out our best sleep masks guide.
Breathing exercises for sleep
Bedtime breathing exercise
Aimee Hartley recommends this bedtime breathing technique to help you settle down for a good night’s sleep. It will calm the mind, reset the nervous system, stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, the breath-hold releases nitric oxide – and it’s easy to remember!
Dr Ben Marshall, respiratory consultant at Southampton University, Hampshire, UK, highly recommends the following breathing technique to help you back into sleep mode.
- Lie in a comfortable position.
- To prepare, engage in a few rounds of muscle tensing and releasing. Inhale as you tense all the muscles of the body. Squeeze your hands into fists, squeeze the muscles of your legs and arms in toward the bones. Tense all the muscles in your face.
- Exhaling through the mouth, relax all muscles
- Repeat a few times.
- Keep space between the top and bottom teeth and place the tip of your tongue to the hard palate of your mouth.
- Breathe 3-4-5 as follows: Breathe in through the nose for a count of 3. Hold the breath in for a count of 4. Breathe out through the mouth for a count of 5. Repeat for at least 10 rounds or until you drift off.
Yawning breathing exercise
“This is really simple and will trick the body into thinking it’s more than ready for some deep sleep,” Aimee says.
If you wake up in the night, simply start yawning. You may have to pretend at first, but soon a real yawn will emerge. Do this until you have given ten proper yawns.
Get your entire body involved, too: stretch the arms and legs while the mouth is wide, then relax the limbs as the mouth closes.
You will soon start to appreciate all the physiological benefits that a yawn can bring, including cooling the brain and relaxing the body.
Ever noticed how babies blink their eyes as they fight to fall asleep? What if this slow blinking routine is an innate intelligence, guiding them into a deeper sleep? This is a breath and eye coordination exercise to practise, one which will hopefully lull you back to sleep.
This exercise will focus the mind and prevent overthinking about daily worries.
- Breathing in through the nose slowly, blink your eyes open.
- Breathing out through the nose slowly, blink your eyes closed.
- Repeat and, even if you feel you are drifting off, keep blinking your eyes open as you breathe in and shut as you breathe out, for a few more rounds. Eventually you should reach the point where it’s a real effort to open your eyes.
- You can bring a breath count into this if you want to focus the mind.
- Breathing in, blink your eyes open for 1…2…3…4.
- Breathing out, blink your eyes shut for 1…2…3…4.
B is for breathe
Aimee says: “This is quite an unusual technique, which came to me in the early hours, and has worked for me during many a sleepless night. The consistent slow breathing in and out of the left nostril will help activate the parasympathetic nervous system and cool the body down – a great precursor for sleep. Add the B-word game to this exercise to keep the mind from overthinking.”
This exercise focuses the mind, prevents overthinking and helps you drift off to sleep.
- With your eyes softly closed and your jaw relaxed, find a comfortable position lying down, either on your back or on your side.
- Practise some left-nostril breathing: block off your right nostril by 90 per cent (using one finger pressed to the outside of the right nostril, with a tiny space for an airway) and breathe in and out slowly through your left nostril only. You may find that your left nostril is slightly blocked – this means the right nostril is your dominant breathing nostril (so you don’t completely block it).
- Breathing in through your left nostril slowly and smoothly, think of a word beginning with B (for instance, “breathe”).
- Breathing out through the left nostril, try and visualise this word (someone breathing out). • Breathing in slowly through the left nostril, think of another word beginning with B (for instance, “banana”).
- Breath out through the left nostril, visualise this word.
- Find a different word with the same letter and visualise it, for each inhalation and exhalation.
The 4-6-2 breathing technique
“If your mind is always racing with thoughts about the events of today or ideas about the future, I’d recommend keeping a pen and paper by your bed and writing them all down (even if it’s just in scribbly shorthand). This helps your brain to let go of those thoughts for the time being because you know they’ll still be there in the morning,” Richie says.
“Next we can use a style of breathing which will help to shift your nervous system from action mode to rest mode. It’s called four-six-two breathing where the numbers refer to the length of each step of the breath, which is four counts inhale, six counts exhale, two counts pause.”
- To start, put one or both hands over your belly button.
- Inhale for four seconds through your nose and feel your hands rise a few centimetres.
- Exhale for six seconds and feel your hands fall a few centimetres. No need to empty your lungs all the way, just exhale slowly until your lungs feel comfortably empty.
- Hold your breath for two seconds. That is one breath cycle.
- Repeat this breath cycle at least ten times, although you can keep repeating it until you drift away to sleep.
If you’re worried about tomorrow
Richie says: “Maybe you’ve got a big presentation tomorrow that’s got you on edge. Here’s a technique that was developed by Japanese Zen masters, but gained popularity in the West when it was discovered that Navy SEALS were using it to calm their nerves before battle.
“Not only does this breathing technique help to relax your nervous system, but its balanced and controlled pattern helps to make you feel like you’re in control. This technique is called box breathing – the breath is broken down into four equal parts, like the sides of a square. The length of each part should be whatever feels comfortable. A good place to start is five seconds, but you can make the lengths longer.”
- Start with empty lungs and breathe into your belly through your nose for a count of five seconds.
- Hold your breath for a count of five.
- Exhale for a count of five.
- Hold your breath for a count of five.
- Repeat this pattern for at least five minutes or until you’ve felt yourself fully calm down.
4-7-8 breathing technique
Do you find it easy to fall asleep, but often wake in the night? Richie has an exercise just for you. “If you wake up in the middle of the night there are a couple of key don’ts,” he explains. “Firstly, do not look at the clock – you’ll instantly start to do the maths on how many hours’ sleep you have left, which in itself can make you feel anxious.
“Secondly, do not turn on the lights – you’ll be telling your brain it’s morning, which will make it so much harder to fall back asleep.
Next, try this great breathing technique, popularised by Dr Andrew Weil. It’s called four-seven-eight breathing, and is so simple! Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there through the entire exercise. You will be exhaling through your mouth around your tongue; try pursing your lips slightly if this seems awkward.
- 1 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. If you still don’t feel sleepy, repeat the breath cycle another four times.
Edited extract from Breathe Well by Aimee Hartley. Published by Kyle Books, £12.99. Edited feature from Sleep Well magazine published in 2019. Featured image: Unsplash/Bruce Mars.
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