The Sleep Doctor’s 5 relaxation techniques to help you de-stress and sleep better
We’re coming off a bitterly fought, contentious election. We’re headed straight into the holiday season. Suffice it to say, there is plenty of stress—and probably a lot of restless sleep—to go around.
Instead of white knuckling through a tense time, consider trying some simple relaxation practices to help you manage stress and anxiety and to sleep better.
The relationship between anxiety and sleep
If, like most people, you’ve ever had trouble falling asleep or staying asleep because of stress and worry, you’ve experienced firsthand the strong connection between anxiety and insomnia. Stress routinely tops the list of sources of sleep problems, according to patients.
Anxiety causes racing thoughts, making it difficult to quiet the mind. It can contribute to heightened, intense emotions, including intrusive fear and a sense of being overwhelmed. Stress and anxiety lead to physical tension throughout the body. Under stress, the body releases more of several hormones—including adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine—that boost energy and alertness, raise heart rate and blood pressure, and prime the body for “fight or flight.” Along with the other symptoms of anxiety, these hormonally driven responses to stress all contribute to:
- Difficulty falling asleep
- Trouble staying asleep throughout the night
- Waking very early
- Waking feeling un-rested and un-refreshed by sleep
These are the hallmark symptoms of insomnia. Anxiety can contribute to different types of insomnia. Periods of high and intense stress—often resulting from difficult, at times unexpected life events—can trigger acute insomnia. That’s when insomnia comes on suddenly and lasts for a relatively short period of time, from a few days to a few weeks. A tense encounter at work, a fight with a partner, or the death of a loved one are the types of anxiety and stress-producing events that trigger acute insomnia.
Anxiety symptoms, when present consistently, can also bring about chronic insomnia—that’s insomnia that persists on a regular basis for more than a month. Anxiety disorders very often are accompanied by insomnia.
Stress and sleep exist in a bi-directional relationship. Just as stress and anxiety trigger insomnia and other sleep problems, lack of sleep increases stress and anxiety. Poor sleep makes us more vulnerable to the symptoms of anxiety, including:
- Irritability and short-temperedness
- Feelings of being overwhelmed
- Struggles with motivation
- Trouble with concentration and memory recall
- Lack of energy
- Increased emotional reactivity
High stress and lack of sleep both contribute to greater risks for mental and physical illness. Stress and insufficient sleep are each independently linked to obesity and weight gain, anxiety and depression, type 2 diabetes and other metabolic disorders, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive dysfunction.
Managing stress and ensuring a routine of plentiful, high quality sleep are critical to protecting your health. Relaxation exercises can help you do both.
5 types of relaxation exercises for sleep
Relaxation exercises have been shown highly effective in reducing stress and improving sleep. Low impact, self-directed, and easily able to be integrated to your daily life, these relaxation strategies can help you get a handle on stress and anxiety during your waking day, and help you de-stress at night before you go to be. The truth is, the line between day and night is not so clear. How we behave throughout the day—including how we manage stress—has a significant effect on how well we sleep at night. Think of your daily, consistent attention to relaxation as a round-the-clock investment in your nightly sleep.
This form of relaxation isn’t particularly well known. That’s a shame, because autogenic training is an effective, accessible method for reducing stress and improving sleep. AT works by using a series of exercises to focus the mind’s attention to specific physical sensations of the body, in order to relax both mentally and physically. Autogenic training focuses the mind on cultivating sensations of warmth and heaviness in different regions of the body. These exercises use both visual imagery and verbal cues to relax physically as well as to quiet and calm one’s thoughts.
AT exercises are most effective when practiced regularly. You can use these relaxation techniques to manage stress throughout the day. Incorporating autogenic training into your nightly power down routine can help you prepare the body and the mind for sleep.
Biofeedback techniques collect information about the body that alert you to stress and allow you to take steps to relax, mentally and physically. Biofeedback works through sensors that track and measure different physical functions, including:
- Heart rate
- Body temperature
- Muscle contraction
- Sleep stages
These physiological processes provide important signals about stress levels. Rapid breathing, sweaty palms, and an uptick in heart rate are common signs of anxiety. Biofeedback, by bringing attention to these physical manifestations of stress and anxiety, giving you the chance to deal with that stress using other relaxation strategies.
There is a booming business behind delivering biofeedback through mobile and wearable devices. In addition to tracking fitness, movement, and sleep, many wearable trackers are also delivering information about stress and emotions, as measured through biofeedback. Of course, tracking on its own can’t relax you—but it can make alert you to signs of stress so you can take focused, self-aware steps toward relaxation, whether in the middle of an active day or in the evening as you prepare for sleep.
Deep, slow, self-aware breathing is an ancient, powerful way to clear the body of stress and tension, and a great way to relax as part of a nightly transition to sleep. Deep breathing kicks off a series of physiological changes that aid relaxation, including reducing muscle tension, slowing breathing rate and heart rate, lowering blood pressure and metabolism.
A breathing practice can be as simple as taking a series of even, slow inhale and exhale breaths as a regular routine during the day, or whenever you feel anxious or stressed. There are also a multitude of structured breathing exercises. Here is one of my favorites.
In a comfortable position, with your eyes open or closed:
- Inhale for 4 seconds
- Hold breath for 7 seconds
- Exhale slowly, for 8 seconds
- Repeat several times
What does the act of deep breathing do for the body and mind, to relax and promote healthy sleep? By taking a deep inhale and holding your breath, you’re increasing the body’s oxygen level, allowing your body to have to work slightly less hard to function. A long, slow exhale has a meditative quality to it that is inherently relaxing. That slow exhale is also very similar to the pace of breathing your body adopts as you’re falling asleep. By deep breathing before bedtime, in a way you’re mimicking the breathing patterns of sleep onset, and nudging your body and mind toward its all-important period of rest.
Think about tasting a tart or sour food–maybe sucking on lemon or a lime, or swallowing a teaspoon of vinegar. Really imagine this experience: the smell, the taste on your tongue, the sensation as the food hits your throat. What happened? You likely had a physical reaction to this fantasy. Maybe your lips puckered, or your mouth watered. That is the power of imagination, and of guided imagery. When we imagine something, our bodies respond as though they were actually experiencing that imagined moment.
Guided imagery is a mind-body technique that can be used to reduce stress and promote sleep. Guided imagery exercises engage all the senses in a focused period of imagination. This powerful mind-body tool helps to connect the conscious mind with the unconscious mind, and helps the mind direct the body toward positive, desirable responses. Guided imagery can be tailored and targeted to different goals, including to relieve physical and mental stress, to reduce anxiety, to prepare for and bring about sleep. Guided imagery is another terrific component of a nightly pre-bed routine. Spending a few minutes engaged in a soothing, restful guided image journey—such as imagining floating peacefully in a calm ocean, being rocked by gentle waves and covered by a warm breeze—can help you gently separate from the stresses of the day and prepare the mind and body to sleep.
There are several different levels and forms of guided imagery that range from visualizations to more organized and targeted imaginative scripts and storytelling. It’s possible to learn guided imagery on your own. It can also be valuable to seek the assistance of a therapist or practitioner in developing a guided imagery practice.
This mind-body relaxation technique is a simple, striking way to become familiar with your body and the places where you hold stress and tension. Progressive relaxation involves working one at a time with different areas and muscle groups of the body, first tensing and relaxing them. This practice cultivates an awareness of what both tension and relaxation feel like in your body. With that awareness you become better prepared to address that physical tension and any mental or emotional stress that accompanies it.
Used as part of a nightly power down routine, progressive relaxation can help you release physical and mental tension that, left unaddressed, can interfere with sleep. A typical progressive relaxation routine starts at the lowest point of the body—the feet—and works gradually up to the top of the head, tensing and relaxing every area of the body along the way.
The broad benefits of relaxation
Scientific studies are showing the benefits of these relaxation techniques in managing stress and promoting sound and restful sleep. Controlling stress and getting sufficient high-quality sleep are two important components of health, so by using relaxation techniques to help in these areas, you’re making an investment in your fundamental well being.
These same relaxation techniques are also used to help a range of other health conditions. On their own, and more often in conjunction with other therapies, these five relaxation practices may help:
- Reduce chronic and intermittent pain
- Limit daytime fatigue
- Ease nausea
- Improve cardiovascular function, including lowering blood pressure
- Treat and control symptoms of mood disorders, including depression, anxiety, and PTSD
- Quit smoking
These relaxation techniques are used in treatment of cancer and other serious illnesses to help patients better cope with symptoms of disease and of treatment. There is preliminary, emerging evidence that meditation and relaxation practices may contribute to better cancer outcomes. Studies also indicate that relaxation practices may have a positive effect on immune function and nervous-system activity.
The broad potential benefits of relaxation practices stand to go way beyond helping you manage your way through family holidays, or navigate post-election conversations with co-workers and friends. Integrating relaxation exercises to your daily life can significantly improve your sleep, lower your levels of ongoing stress and anxiety—and help you better cope with the acute spikes in stress we all encounter in life. They can contribute to whole body health and wellness, through every day and every season of the year.
Michael J. Breus, PhD
The Sleep Doctor™