Do you ever tuck yourself in at night—teeth brushed, alarm set, white noise machine on—only to have your racing thoughts prevent you from falling asleep? Well, we’re with you. Thanks in large part to technology and the economy, mixed in with our relationships, Americans are way more stressed than we used to be.
Unfortunately for us, stress doesn’t limit itself to interfering with our lives during the day. The Sleep Foundation states that if you have racing thoughts, a high heart rate, or super tense muscles, your stress is likely inhibiting your body’s ability to sleep. With removing all the stressors from your life an unlikely option, you’ll need to figure out how to relax. Luckily, alleviating your worry and anxiety is as easy as breathing.
We spoke to a few professional counselors to learn about the best breathing techniques to quiet your mind, calm your nerves, and get you to sleep.
Four square breathing
“Deep breathing helps us regulate our parasympathetic nervous system which is associated with decreases in emotional arousal which can lead to better sleep,” says Liz Hughes, a licensed professional counselor at Ajana Therapy & Clinical Services. “One of my favorite techniques include four square breathing where you breathe in for four, hold to four, out for four, pause for four, then repeat.”
Out of all the breathing techniques, four square breathing—often called box breathing—is the most rhythmic. It’s great for stress management, and perfect for the more musical-minded among us.
“The most effective deep breathing technique to use for relaxation towards sleep is called diaphragmatic breathing,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Aaron Weiner. “Using this technique, you take air in through your nose, draw it deep into the lungs such that your belly-button moves outward and your chest and shoulders stay relatively static, and then release the breath through your mouth.”
How does diaphragmatic breathing stack up against the other techniques? The mind-body connection, says Dr. Weiner. “Your brain looks to your body for cues about how to feel about a certain situation. When you engage in diaphragmatic breathing your upper body is loose and relaxed—this signals to your brain that things are okay, which helps defuse tense situations or deepen your current feelings of relaxation.”
Definitely the most daunting breathing technique on our list, don’t let Ujjayi’s unfamiliar nature deter you from trying. This type of breath, which means “victorious breath” in Sanskrit, is meant to increase oxygenation while building internal body heat, hence why we normally see it paired with movement practices by yoga.
So, how do you do it? “Ujjayi is best described as breathing in and out through the nose with focus on the throat,” explains occupational therapist Cheryl Albright. “Although this can cause heat, it may help bring awareness to the areas of the respiratory system affected by sleep apnea.”
Ujjayi is characterized by making a slight constriction in your throat, explains meditation teacher Kyle Greenfield, founder of The Joy Within. “You can enter a state of deep relaxation by engaging in this type of breath,” he says. “By constricting your throat, you emit a soft, oceanic sound as you breathe.”
Alternate nostril breathing
If your mind won’t stop racing, alternate nostril breathing is going to be your new best friend. Often called yogic breathing, “this one is probably the most beneficial at calming the nervous system down,” says Albright. “It is typically used prior to meditation.”
To practice this technique, place your left thumb on your left nostril, and your ring finger on your right. Close off your left nostril and steadily breathe deeply through your right. Stop at the top, closing both nostrils for a second or two. Then close your right nostril, and gently exhale through the left. Continue this practice for a few minutes, until you can feel your heart rate slowing and your mind calming.
“If I could only offer one piece of advice on how to decrease anxiety and increase relaxation, it would be to make breathwork a part of your daily routine,” says Kellie “Casey” Cook, a licensed professional counselor specializing in anxiety.
“The 4-7-8 practice (inhaling for 4 counts, holding your breath for 7 counts, and exhaling for 8 counts) is one of the more well-known and utilized practices, and this one is especially effective when used just before bedtime.”
The 4-7-8 breath is regarded as one of the simplest and most useful tools to achieve relaxation. But why 4-7-8? According to the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, it’s the ratio, not the time, that’s important. “This exercise is a natural tranquilizer for the nervous system,” writes the Center. “Unlike tranquilizing drugs, which are often effective when you first take them but then lose their power over time, this exercise is subtle when you first try it but gains in power with repetition and practice.”
Make sure you’re breathing correctly
“The practice you use is less important than your technique,” says Cook. “A lot of us tend to breathe up in our chests, which is shallow breathing and can actually worsen anxiety.”
How can you ensure you’re breathing deeply? By breathing into your abdomen, enough so that you can feel your belly inflating and deflating as you inhale and exhale. “It’s also important to make sure you are breathing through your nose rather than your mouth,” says Cook. “Go through each cycle of breath slowly while trying to focus solely on your breath. Rapid breathing tends to be more shallow and will increase your heart rate, which is the opposite of what you need to happen in order to relax and drift off to sleep.”
Featured image: @ciaratoga