Sleep can be an elusive thing which is why we’re constantly on the hunt for the be-all and end-all trick to nodding off, whether this is banishing our phone to a distant corner of the house or changing our diet.
However, with stress and anxiety being a common cause of sleepless nights, finding ways to banish these feelings before our head hits the pillow seems the best practice. But how to go about it? Yoga and meditation are good choices, but certain breathing techniques can be just as effective.
What are Breathing Techniques?
Finding ways to rid ourselves of stresses from the day is crucial when on the quest for a good night’s sleep. We can all find it hard to switch off, but the answer could lie in something as simple as the way we breathe. As both a voluntary and involuntary action, we can take control of our breathing as and when we wish. Breathing affects the rest of our body, so by learning how to take control of our breathing, we can change how breathing affects our body, too.
Controlled breathing has long featured in Eastern health exercises, with many finding their way to the practice via yoga. Whichever way you come across it the effect of the action is that more oxygen enters the body while carbon dioxide goes out. This has a range of benefits with the main effect being a relaxation response to the body’s fight or flight response that occurs when stressed.
As well as relaxing our fight or flight response to stressful situations it can also help to manage anxiety. Controlled breathing stimulates the vagus nerve, releasing a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. This decreases feelings of anxiety, increases focus and promotes feelings of calm.
Controlled breathing also results in lower heart rate and blood pressure when practised consistently. These calming and relaxing benefits are all ideal for helping us to banish anxious thoughts and feelings and settle down easily for sleep.
1 – The 4-7-8 routine
Developed by Dr Andrew Weil, this technique relaxes and de-stresses. To try this yourself do the following: exhale through your mouth, making a ‘whoosh’ sound. Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose as you count to four. Hold your breath for a count of seven and exhale through the mouth again in the same way for a count of eight. Repeat this four times.
2 – Meditative breathing
The very first step in mindfulness meditation is learning to regulate your breathing. It requires some concentration, but it’s worth it once the relaxing effect takes hold. Connect with the rise and fall of your breath within your body, where you feel movement as you breathe and how the sensation of breathing feels. You should feel your muscles relax and loosen as you practise this for 8 to 10 minutes.
3 – Double exhalation
This technique helps to keep us from thinking about stressful things and is much more effective than counting sheep! Slow breathing such as this also helps to reset the autonomic nervous system by synchronising neural elements in the brain, heart and lungs. To do this yourself, simply exhale twice as long as you inhale. The practice is particularly common in yoga.
4 – Alternate your nostrils
It might seem a little odd but breathing through your nose sends signals of relaxation to the brain. Breathing through your mouth, however, is an indication of stress. Commonly you breathe through your mouth when unwell, scared, fatigued and when your heart rate is elevated.
To try this sit in a relaxed position and close your left nostril with your right ring finger to inhale. Swap your nostrils to exhale. Keep your eyes closed throughout and practice until you begin to feel calmer.
5 – Deep breathing
This routine is ideal as you get to lie down while doing it, putting you in the perfect position to fall right to sleep. Lie on your back, legs hip distance apart, arms relaxing at the side of your body. Take a few deep inhales through the nose and exhale through your mouth. Each time you inhale aim to fill your lungs and rid them entirely of air when you exhale.
After you have done this three times, take a deep nose inhalation for four counts, constricting the back of the throat, so it feels like you are breathing through a straw. It should sound a little bit like snoring. Hold the breath for a count of four before exhaling through the nose in the same way for a count of four again. Each time you repeat the breath try to breathe and hold the breath for an excess of two more counts until you reach the maximum you can manage. Then begin holding less until you are back to 4 counts at which point you should be ready for sleep.
If you tried any of these breathing techniques let us know what you thought in the comments section.