By Sandee LaMotte, CNN
You are exhausted, your body is yawning to sleep. Yet once your head hits the pillow, your mind is flooded with worry, making sleep elusive, sometimes impossible.
Don’t worry, experts say: there are relaxation techniques you can use to calm that racing spirit.
“Think of these relaxation exercises as tools in your toolkit for better sleep,” said sleep specialist Rebecca Robbins, an instructor in the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“Practice them, and you’ll fall asleep better and better, which is the Holy Grail, isn’t it? No one wants to spend time tossing and turning at night.
1. Controlled deep breathing
Deep breathing is a scientific method for calming the body and mind that can be practiced easily before going to bed and when you wake up in the middle of the night.
Changing the rate of your breathing slows your heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and stimulates the body’s parasympathetic “rest and digest” system, which can put worry and anxiety off the line.
“Consciously focusing on the breath can help you separate yourself from the thoughts racing through your brain,” Robbins said.
There are several deep breathing techniques you can try. Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as belly breathing, focuses on relaxing the diaphragm, the main muscle of breathing. Begin by inhaling deeply through your nose for a slow count of six, making sure you can feel your belly rise with your hand as it fills with air. Count to six again, letting the breath escape slowly.
“Strive for effortless, smooth, quiet inhales while treating your exhales as gentle, prolonged sighs of relief,” suggested Dana Santas, CNN contributor, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and mind-body coach.
Stay in the moment, said Santa Claus, focusing on the sounds and sensations of your breath: “Direct all your senses to follow the path of the air through your nose, into your throat, into your lungs and again. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath, what is happening here and now.
Meditation is an age-old method of calming the body and mind. Studies show that it can help perfectionists stop judging themselves and can aid in the treatment of smoking, pain, addiction disorders, and depression, among others.
Using direct measures of brain function and structure, one study found that it only took 30 minutes a day of meditation practice for two weeks to produce a measurable change in the brain.
“When these types of mental exercises are taught to people, it actually changes their brain function and structure,” said neuroscientist Richard Davidson, professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds. , told CNN in a previous interview.
There are many resources on the Internet to help someone start meditating. Davidson and his colleagues have created a free science app designed to help people practice meditation and mindfulness.
Visualization is another sleep aid. Imagine a quiet, peaceful place in your mind and fill it with specific objects, colors, and sounds. Researchers found that people who visualize in detail were able to clear unwanted thoughts from their minds more effectively.
If you’re having trouble populating the scene, the researchers suggest asking yourself questions about smell, touch, and light, like “Can I feel the sun on my skin?” What do I smell in the air?
You can also visualize your body relaxing, experts say. While breathing deeply and slowly, imagine that your breath is wind flowing through the body, easing stress and releasing tension as it travels through each part of the body and then escapes.
“I like to think of the breath as a light in your mind’s eye that grows larger as you breathe in and shrinks as you breathe out,” Robbins said. “These tangible strategies where you visualize something and match that to a breath are really powerful.”
4. Progressive muscle relaxation
Most of us aren’t even aware of the tension we carry in our muscles until it manifests in backaches and headaches.
According to experts, progressive muscle relaxation is a way to relax these muscles, making it easier to fall asleep. You tense and relax the muscle groups of the body in a certain order, starting at the head and working your way down to the toes and feet.
Each section of the body is tightly tensed and held for 10 seconds as you inhale. Strive to squeeze each muscle hard, but not so tightly that it cramps or hurts. Then, when you exhale, relax the muscle suddenly and all at once. University of Michigan Health recommends that you do the exercises in a systematic order which you can find here.
There’s an added benefit to exercise, experts say: there’s no room in your brain for anxious thoughts.
5. Set a “worry time” before bed
Here’s a way to stop your mind from repetitively listing all the things you need to do (or haven’t done), but it only works if you do it before you get fired.
“Don’t worry in bed. Schedule ‘worry time’ – a period of time outside of the bedroom, outside of sleep, to worry about the things that naturally creep into your mind at night,” said sleep specialist Dr Raj Dasgupta, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.
“Write down a list of things you need to do tomorrow,” suggested Dr. Vsevolod Polotsky, professor of medicine and director of sleep research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“You can even email it to yourself. It gives you satisfaction and the realization that it’s dark and you can’t do anything with your list, but you can deal with it tomorrow,” Polotsky said.
All of these mind tricks and relaxation tips have a purpose beyond a night’s sleep, experts say.
“They’re extremely beneficial from a classical conditioning perspective,” Robbins said. “If your body knows that what comes after you stop doing these activities is sleep, then you start to condition yourself, and after a while your body will slide more easily into a relaxed state, which increases your chances of to sleep.”
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