Breathing Exercises That Can Help You Sleep
Do you sleep next to someone who falls asleep the second their head hits the pillow? I mean – they are almost snoring before they lay down? Whilst you lie there, unable to escape your head. Desperate to fall asleep, frustration growing by the minute. I remember speaking with someone who was so sensitive to noise at night that they could hear the gentle hum of the fridge downstairs whilst they lay upstairs in bed. Research shows that when we close our eyes not only does our hearing improve but also the ability to focus on what we hear increases. Typical isn’t it!
There are many different things that impede sleep and lots of different techniques to help you fall to sleep (read more here). Breath work is something that you should not underestimate. If you are someone that feels anxious at night, just knowing that your in breath causes your heart beat to speed up and your out breath causes it to slow down. This is the natural way your body keeps a regular rhythmic heartbeat. However, when you feel anxious and your heart rate increases you have the power to slow it back down to a more comfortable pace by making your exhale longer than your inhale.
Evidence shows us that breathing exercises can help you to relax and sleep better. There are many different breathing exercises all with benefits. Below are some breathing exercises for sleep that will help you when you want to sleep but your body just is not going there.
Breathing Exercises for Sleep
Ideally you will always breathe into your diaphragm rather than your chest. Some people call this type of breathing abdominal or belly breathing. The diaphragm is a bridge between the lungs and the abdomen. When you inhale, to help pull air into your lungs it contracts and flattens. There is more space in your chest and the lungs fully expand. When you exhale the opposite happens, the diaphragm relaxes and moves upward into the bridge shape again helping the lungs to push the air out. This is the natural way to breathe. As life stress increases and other deliberate habits start, such as sucking in your stomach, we start shallow breathing into the chest. Abdominal breathing allows full oxygen exchange, lowers the heartbeat and stabilises blood pressure. All things that will help your body function optimally to encourage sleep.
Diaphragmatic breathing is very simple to learn, whilst you may need to retrain your diaphragm like any other muscle the actual exercise is simple. All you need to do is put one hand on your chest and the other over your navel. When you inhale, direct the breath all the way past the back of your throat, down into your chest and continuing down into your stomach so that your stomach expands. Your hand over your navel should rise whilst the hand over your chest stays still.
It is not always the breathing that helps you to sleep, rather the redirection of focus from worries to the present moment. Mindfulness techniques will help you take control of your thoughts which will help you sleep. However, in the meantime this breathing technique will clear your mind as the concentration required for the breathing technique forces it to remain in the present.
The integrative doctor Andrew Weil advocates 4-7-8 breathing which is a yoga breath technique. As with other breathing techniques this is a form of conscious breathing which takes attention and focus.
Begin by putting your tongue on the top of your mouth just behind your teeth. Take a breath in quietly through your nose for a count of four, hold this breath for a count of seven and then exhale by blowing the air out forcefully through your mouth making a woosh sound for a count of eight. Dr. Weil recommends repeating this for four breath cycles. The length of time you can hold your breath for will increase as you practise so what might feel difficult at first will become easier in time.
In Addition to Breathing Exercises For Sleep
The above are just two techniques out of many. Alongside conscious breath I like to use a mindfulness tool to prevent my mind from running away with itself. I imagine I am standing at the top of a ten step flight of stairs. Sometimes my imagination is wildly creative, other times I find myself at the top of a basic loft ladder! Regardless, the technique is the same and works well in both situations.
My intention is to imagine myself walking from the top of the stairs / ladder counting each step as I go. As soon as I notice my mind drifting off I take myself back to the top and begin the countdown again. The story is generally the same for me. I regularly have to take myself back to the top at the beginning of the second step ie. I barely get past the second step because I repeatedly catch myself thinking of other things, until – I wake up in the morning! Providing I follow the rules the technique always works well for me.