If you’ve struggled with your sleep for some time and have found little relief, it’s not uncommon to reach a point where you start seeking substance- or product-free solutions.
You may have heard of or tried CBT-I (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia), which includes a behavioral treatment component called “stimulus control”. The rule in this clinical protocol for insomnia is that if you don’t fall asleep in 10-15 minutes, you must “get out of bed, go into another room, and engage in some quiet activity.” (Morin, p. 116)
While the intention of this practice is worthy–to help anxious people re-associate their bed with easy, restful sleep–my experience as a Sleep Wellness Coach shows me that techniques like these can backfire. For the busy, stressed-out, anxious people I work with, getting out of bed simply reinforces the habit of deferring much-needed rest and relaxation.
Morin and colleagues indicate one should “practice non stimulating activities” (Morin, p. 116). However, for people whose nervous systems regularly function in a hyper-aroused state, the act of “going vertical” to get oneself out of bed IS ITSELF stimulating, and continues to reinforce the pattern of always up and always “doing”.
So, here are 7 techniques you can experiment with to fall asleep faster, without ever leaving your bed. You can also try these techniques to help you fall back to sleep faster, should you really need to get up (e.g. to use the toilet) or when you wake up earlier than you’d like.
Tip: While I offer 7 techniques, please do pick just ONE, and do it for at least 3-4 weeks before switching to a different technique. Think of it like training: consistency is very important.
#1 – Nyasa (Finger Breathing)
This is my go-to technique. It’s useful to do during the day when you need a reset. When done in bed at night, it’s best to lie on your back with your arms at your sides, palms facing up.
Bring your thumbs to the base of your index fingers: inhale as you slide the thumbs up to the tips of the index fingers (making an “OK” sign), exhale as you move back down. Move the thumbs to the middle finger, and repeat. Continue moving down the hand until you reach the pinky finger. Do the pinky finger again to reverse the direction, and continue until you’re back at the index finger. (That’s one round.) Repeat several times.
#2 – Route Visualization
Do you regularly travel the same route? Whether it’s a daily walk about the neighborhood, a hike you have enjoyed several times, a drive you know quite well, or even a standard yoga sequence, you can use your intimate knowledge of the route as a visualization.
Imagine yourself at your starting point, as if you’re just setting out. Then, mentally begin moving forward. Notice any signposts along the way–e.g,. a tree, a building, a bridge, a waterway, anything that helps you recognize you’re moving along your path.
Tip: Don’t have a route you can use? The next time you take a walk, for example, pay closer attention to what you see along the way. You’ll not only be more mindful as you do the walk, but you can the signposts during your visualization tonight.
#3 – Thoughts into Hands
I was first exposed to this as a meditation by one of my mentors, Jorge Luna. It’s a good way to sweep your mind of stressful, stimulating thoughts at any time. At night, it’s another one where it could be helpful to lie on your back with your arms at your sides, palms facing up (though it’s not entirely necessary).
As a thought arises, picture it in a thought bubble floating just above you. Quickly decide if it’s a thought you’d like to keep (or remember for the next day). If it is, imagine it floating down into your dominant hand. If it’s a thought you’d rather release or let go of, imagine it floating down into your non-dominant hand. Continue like this with each thought as it arises.
Tip: You may notice the same thought pops up more than once as you practice. Decide each time where to put it.
#4 – 1:2 Ratioed Breath
I have to admit I’m not a fan of the 4-7-8 breath. Most of my clients–who suffer from stress and/or anxiety–have trained their breathing patterns to be too short and shallow to do this comfortably. And, forcing the breath to a particular number often increases worry and triggers perfectionistic tendencies.
A gentler way is to first notice the length of your inhalation. You can count if it’s helpful, or simply notice. Do this for a few cycles of your natural breath. Then, repeat this process with your exhalation. Then, do what’s easiest to bring your breath to a matching, 1:1 ratio. Get really comfortable here before moving on. (This 1:1 breathing is great to do during the day; it balances the sides of the nervous system so one generally feels alert yet calm.
Next, start to lengthen your exhalation by 1 count, or a slight amount. Do this for a few cycles before lengthening again. If it’s comfortable, you’ll end up lengthening the exhalation until it’s about double the time of your inhalation (thus, the 1:2 ratio). For example, if your in-breath takes around 4 counts, your out-breath will take around 8. Keep in mind that the numbers you use doesn’t matter; the ratio does.
Tip: The 1:1 breathing ratio is called sama vritti, or equal breath. Watch a guided instructional video.
#5 – “Hot Spot” Body Scan
This is a useful technique if you find both your mind and your body feel too restless or tense to surrender to sleep.
Bring your attention to the big toe of your right foot. Notice if you sense any tension there, and if you do, invite your toe to relax by taking a natural breath in and out. Then, move to the second toe and do the same. Slowly scan your entire body, shifting your attention to the next small part. (If you don’t find any tension in an area, that’s fine.) Move methodically until you’ve gone through the entire body once.
If you finish that you can repeat it going in the opposite direction, or simply tune in and notice which part draws your attention as being slightly more tense than the others (i.e. the “hot spot”). Take your intention and your natural breath in and out once each time you find a new spot.
Tip: Over time, you may see an increase in your awareness of and your ability to soften areas of subtle tension in your body.
#6 – Counting Exhales
If counting typically increases your anxiety or doesn’t hold your attention the way you’d like, counting exhales can help.
Simply breathe in, and on your exhale, say to yourself: “1”. Then inhale again. On your next exhale, mentally say, “2”. And so on.
Tip: You can count backwards from 100 if you prefer, but I prefer to count up. This is because counting down could add pressure to be asleep before you reach 0.
#7 – Sense Cycling
For this technique we’ll use the 5 basic senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste.
First, call to mind a place that makes you feel happily content. As best you can, visualize yourself there. Notice what you see that helps place you there. How might you describe it to someone who has never been, or cannot see? Paint a picture. What objects, colors, textures do you find around you? When you run out of things to see, discover 1-2 more.
Next, what do you hear while you’re in this place? Notice all the sounds–their volume, rhythm, tone, etc. When you run out of things to hear, just listen without searching. What comes up? Can you hear the silence?
Repeat this process with the senses of smell, touch, and taste. Take your time, allowing your mind to relax and be creative. If your place is the beach, for example, can you feel the sand run through your fingers, or snuggle your bum? Can you smell or taste the salt in the ocean water nearby?
If you come to the end, cycle through your senses using the same place. What you notice may be the same or different; it makes no difference.
Tip: Notice I said “happily content”. Ideally your happy place lacks stimulation, which is what we’re trying to reduce with these techniques.
While I’ve listed these 7 techniques as ones that can help you fall asleep faster, please keep in mind that falling asleep is NOT the goal.
The primary goal is to reduce the activity of your sympathetic nervous system; to release the excess stimulation and energy you’ve probably been taking in all day long. If you’re practicing one of these techniques, you’re doing that, regardless of how it feels in the moment or whether you fall asleep as a result.
If you’ve been suffering for years, some time with one of these techniques will likely be necessary. Think of it as training yourself for a 10K when you’re starting as a couch potato.
Give yourself permission to experiment. Trust in your journey.
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