6 Mindfulness and Relaxation Techniques to Help You Sleep
Relaxing your body and mind before bed can help you not only fall asleep easily but also achieve a better quality of sleep. When your body prepares itself for sleep, your hormonal balances change, your body temperature drops and your heart rate slows down.
When we go to bed, our bodies are often unprepared for sleep, which can be why we experience trouble falling asleep or poor sleep quality. Fortunately, practising certain techniques can help you achieve a better state of relaxation, ready for optimal sleep. Here, we outline scientifically-supported strategies to help you drift off into a restorative sleep every night.
Otherwise known as guided imagery, visualisation can help shift your brain activity using specific images to promote restful, quality sleep. In one study, researchers found that picturing an environment where subjects’ felt peaceful and safe had a remarkably positive impact on sleep latency and distressing pre-sleep cognitive activity.i
Visualisation works by imagining yourself somewhere that’s inviting enough to pull you away from unwanted thoughts. Try visualising an environment where you feel content and at ease — common visualisations include a tranquil meadow, beach, or waterfall, but it should be anywhere you feel calm.
A growing body of research suggests an attitude of gratitude encourages deeper, longer sleep. It seems that cultivating a grateful outlook keeps pessimism and worry at bay and increases the likelihood of having more positive thoughts as you fall asleep. A 2011 study discovered that journaling for just 15 minutes every evening helped participants worry less around bedtime and sleep more soundly.ii
Every evening, write down three to five things you feel grateful for that day. To make gratitude journaling part of your bedtime routine, you may find it helpful to download a gratitude app to your phone or keep all your notes in one journal.
Meditation trains you to be more grounded in the present moment. That’s why meditation creates the optimal conditions needed for a quality, restful sleep. When you settle the mind, you also settle the body — this relaxation is what makes it easier to unwind and drift off into restorative sleep. Research has identified that meditation also lowers your heart rate by stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and promoting slower breathing, which increases the probability of a restful night’s sleep.iii, iv
To encourage the body to wind down, dedicate 10-15 minutes to a simple breathing meditation before bed. Working with a guided sleep-based meditation will help you discover new techniques and tools to help relax the mind and body, and ease into restfulness. You can find sleep meditations online or via an app.
Yoga’s intrinsic mindfulness can help to release pent up tension and stress, as well as providing the body with a thorough workout, tiring your muscles. Practising yoga relieves stress and anxiety, unwinds the nervous system, provides a nightly ritual, improves the overall quality of sleep, and evokes feelings of peace and calm — all of which can support rest.v
One way to improve your sleep quality is by practising yoga before bed. Start with a short meditation, and then follow with a relaxing sequence of restorative or yin-based yoga positions, which focus on a sense of calm and stability. Other exercises can also help promote sleep, find out more here.
Regulating your breath can be another way to help you sleep. Although there are many variations of breathwork to support sleep, the ‘4-7-8’ technique developed by Dr. Andrew Weil has gained the most traction.vi Research has established a clear connection between deep breathing exercises and stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system (which slows your heart rate).vii
Deep breathing exercises have also been shown to help reach a state of cardiorespiratory synchronisation — when your heart rate and breathing patterns synchronise.vii This state has been shown to increase during the deepest, most restorative phase of sleep (NREM sleep), demonstrating how deep breathing can also improve the quality of your sleep.viii
To perform the 4-7-8 breathing exercise, lie down in bed comfortably. Put the tip of your tongue to the ridge of tissue just behind your upper front teeth, and keep it there for the entire exercise. Close your mouth and inhale silently through your nose for four seconds. Hold your breath for seven seconds. Exhale entirely through your mouth, making a ‘whooshing’ sound for eight seconds. Repeat this cycle three more times.
Your sense of smell can help your body prepare for rest, too. When you smell something, your olfactory nerve sends signals directly to your amygdala and limbic system — the areas of the brain responsible for memory and mood. Lavender essential oil, in particular, encourages the body to unwind at night. Researchers found that subjects who inhaled lavender for two minutes at three, 10-minute intervals before bedtime improved their sleep quality and felt more energised when they woke up.ix
Alongside inhalation, you could dilute lavender essential oil with an air diffuser, massage a few drops to specific areas of the body (neck, chest, hands, wrist or toes), mix the oil with Epsom salts and add to a hot bath, or create a spray to spritz on your pillow or into the air.
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution to helping you relax into sleep. Some techniques will work for you, and others won’t. Ultimately, it comes down to trial and error, but prioritising relaxation can benefit your sleep quality enormously. To learn more about improving your sleep hygiene, explore our dedicated sleep health resources.
Harvey. A. & Payne. S. (2002). The management of unwanted pre-sleep thoughts in insomnia: distraction with imagery versus general distraction. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 40(3), 267-277.
Digdon. N. & Koble. A. (2011). Effects of Constructive Worry, Imagery Distraction, and Gratitude Interventions on Sleep Quality: A Pilot Trial. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. 3(2), 193-206.
Harvard Health Publishing. (2013). Meditation offers significant heart benefits - Harvard Health. Available online: https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/meditation-offers-significant-heart-benefits
Brogaard. B. (2015). How Deep Relaxation Affects Brain Chemistry. Psychology Today. Available online: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-mysteries-love/201503/how-deep-relaxation-affects-brain-chemistry
Breus. M. (2012). Yoga Can Help With Insomnia. Psychology Today. Available online: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/sleep-newzzz/201210/yoga-can-help-insomnia
DrWeil.com. (2018). Dr. Weil - Integrative Medicine, Healthy Lifestyles & Happiness. Available online: https://www.drweil.com
Jerath. R., Beveridge. C. & Barnes. V. (2018). Self-Regulation of Breathing as an Adjunctive Treatment of Insomnia. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 9(780).
Jerath. R., Harden. K., et al. (2014). Role of cardiorespiratory synchronization and sleep physiology: effects on membrane potential in the restorative functions of sleep. Sleep Medicine. 15(3), pp.279-288.
Goel. N., Kim. H. & Lao. R.. (2005). An Olfactory Stimulus Modifies Nighttime Sleep in Young Men and Women. Chronobiology International. 22(5), 889-904
Olivia Salter has always been an avid health nut. After graduating from the University of Bristol, she began working for a nutritional consultancy where she discovered her passion for all things wellness-related. There, she executed much of the company’s content marketing strategy and found her niche in health writing, publishing articles in Women’s Health, Mind Body Green, Thrive and Psychologies.