By Sandee LaMotte, CNN
You are exhausted, your body yawning from sleep. However, 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 mind.
“Think of these relaxation exercises as tools in your toolbox for better sleep,” said sleep specialist Rebecca Robbins, an instructor in the division of sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“Practice them and you will get better and better at falling asleep, which is the holy grail, right? No one wants to spend time hanging around at night.”
1. Controlled deep breathing
Deep breathing is a science-backed method of calming your body and mind that can be easily done before bed and when you wake up in the middle of the night.
Changing the rhythm of your breathing slows your heart rate, lowers your blood pressure, and stimulates your body’s “rest and digest” parasympathetic system, which can turn off worry and anxiety.
“Consciously focusing on your breath can help you detach from the thoughts that are flying through your brain,” Robbins said.
There are a number of deep breathing techniques that you can try. Diaphragmatic breathing, also known as abdominal breathing, focuses on relaxing the diaphragm, the main muscle of breathing. Begin by taking a deep breath through your nose to a slow count of six, making sure you can feel your stomach rise with your hand as it fills with air. Count to six again as you slowly exhale.
“Strive for effortless, smooth, soundless inhalations while treating your exhalations like long, soft sighs of relief,” suggested CNN contributor Dana Santas, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and mind-body coach.
Stay in the moment, Santas said, concentrating on the sounds and sensations of your breath: “Direct all your senses to follow the path of the air as it enters your nose, down your throat, into your lungs, and out again. If your mind wanders, bring it back to your breath, happening here and now.”
Meditation is a centuries-old method of calming the body and mind. Studies show that it can help perfectionists stop judging themselves and can help in the treatment of smoking, pain, addictive 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 over the course of two weeks to produce a measurable change in the brain.
“When you teach people these types of mental exercises, it actually changes the function and structure of their brain,” said neuroscientist Richard Davidson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder and director of the Center for Healthy Minds. , he told CNN in a previous interview.
There are many resources on the Internet to help someone start meditating. Davidson and his colleagues created a free, science-based app designed to help people practice meditation and mindfulness.
Visualization is another sleep aid. Imagine a calm and peaceful place in your mind and fill it with specific objects, colors and sounds. Researchers have found that people who visualize closely can push unwanted thoughts out of their minds more successfully.
If you’re having trouble filling the scene, the researchers suggest asking yourself questions about smell, touch, and light, such as “Can I feel the sun on my skin? What do I smell in the air?
You can also visualize your body relaxing, experts say. As you breathe deeply and slowly, imagine that your breath is a wind moving through your body, relieving stress and relaxing tension as it moves through each part of your body and then escapes.
“I like to think of breath as a light in your mind’s eye that gets bigger when you breathe in and gets smaller when you breathe out,” Robbins said. “Those tangible strategies where you visualize something and compare it to a breath are really powerful.”
4. Progressive muscle relaxation
Most of us aren’t even aware of how much tension we have in our muscles until it shows up in backaches and headaches.
Progressive muscle relaxation is one way to relax those muscles, making it easier to fall asleep, experts say. You tense and relax groups of muscles in the body in a certain order, starting at the head and working your way down to your toes and feet.
Each body section is tensed tightly and held for 10 seconds as you inhale. Strive to squeeze each muscle tightly, but not to the point of cramping or pain. Then, as you exhale, relax the muscle suddenly and all at once. University of Michigan Health recommends doing the exercises in a systematic order which you can find here.
Experts say exercise has an added benefit: There’s no room in the brain for anxious thoughts.
5. Set a ‘worry time’ before bed
This is a way to keep your mind from repeatedly ticking off all the things you should (or haven’t) done, but it only works if you do it before you go to bed.
Don’t worry in bed. Schedule a ‘worry time’ – a period of time out of the bedroom, out of sleep, to worry about the things that naturally go through your mind at night,” said sleep specialist Dr. Raj Dasgupta, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine.
“Write 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 understanding that it is night and there is nothing you can do with your list, but you can attend to it tomorrow,” Polotsky said.
All of these mind tricks and relaxation tips serve a purpose beyond that night’s sleep, experts say.
“They are extremely beneficial from a classical conditioning standpoint,” Robbins said. “If your body knows that what comes after the end of these activities is sleep, then it begins to condition itself, and after a while, your body will more easily enter a relaxed state, which increases your chances of falling asleep.”
The CNN Wire
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