You’re all-too familiar with the cracks and indentations of your bedroom ceiling. Because you’ve spent one-too-many sleepless nights staring at it. And staring. And staring. And staring some more.
You likely don’t struggle with insomnia or another sleep disorder, but on some nights, it’s simply tough to fall asleep–and stay that way.
Psychotherapist Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT, noted that it’s tough to slow ourselves down when our minds and nervous systems have been going, going, going all day long.
“Our brains, which have been computing and having input all day, may be overloaded. We may feel overwhelmed,” she said. “Our nervous systems can also get revved up during the day with so many things to do or managing pieces of our lives we find stressful.”
So when it’s time for our heads to hit the pillow, we feel anything but relaxed or ready for sleep. What can help in lulling us into slumber is having a transition time, which “settles your nervous system,” Thompson said. One of the best ways we can settle our minds and our bodies is to practice mindfulness-based techniques. Here are six to try.
Practice breathing techniques. “I often teach clients conscious breathing exercises to encourage their parasympathetic nervous system to come more online when they can’t fall asleep,” said Vanessa B. Tate, LMFT, LLC, a psychotherapist who works from a somatic psychotherapy lens with individuals and couples with complex trauma and early developmental attachment trauma in Denver, Colo., and the San Francisco Bay area.
She suggested practicing counted breathing, counting backwards from 100 down to zero. This “helps focus the mind and slow the breath down, resulting in lowering the heart rate. [This] tends to put a person more into parasympathetic rest and digest state of the autonomic nervous system.”
Another technique is to inhale for a count of three and exhale for a count of 5 for about 2 to 5 minutes, Tate said. How long you do this will depend on your tolerance, because some people “get lightheaded as their body is so unfamiliar [with] that much oxygen.”
Move your body gently. “Moving the body helps us get ready for sleep to let go of excess energy,” said Thompson, a holistic psychotherapist who specializes in seeing women and couples in their 20s and 30s in New York City. She recommended doing light stretching, practicing yoga or taking a walk—and avoiding anything rigorous right before bed.
According to Thompson, cat and cow pose is helpful for stretching the back and easing tension, and child’s pose helps to slow things down, as well. To practice cat-cow, start with your hands and knees on the floor in “tabletop” position. Begin with your back flat. Then inhale. On your exhale, round your spine toward the ceiling, and tuck your chin to your chest. On the inhale arch your back and lift your neck. Keep repeating this sequence for as long as you like. Yoga Journal explains here how readers can practice child’s pose.
Focus on your five senses. Tate suggested checking in with each of your five senses for 15 to 30 seconds “to see what arises.” What do you smell? What do you taste? What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? “This helps focus the mind, encouraging a person to be very present in the here and now,” she said.
Visit your happy place. According to Jennifer Williamson in her thoughtful, creative book Sleep Rituals: 100 Practices for a Deep and Peaceful Sleep, “Spending a long time in your ‘happy place’ prompts your brain to release serotonin, which feels good and helps override old panic patterns, carving a more positive pathway.”
Williamson suggests picking a place that pleases you—such as a private beach, field of wildflowers, enchanted forest, spa, favorite room, castle in the mountains. Begin by getting into a comfortable position, closing your eyes and focusing on your breath.
If you can’t visualize your happy place just yet, focus on your journey to get there: “the climb up to the top of the mountain; paddling across the lake; anything that resonates with you.” “Imagine coming across a protective archway made of light. It keeps the outside world at bay and provides entrance to deep restfulness.” Next imagine yourself in a place that’s exactly how you want it to be, and immerse yourself in the sensory details. When other thoughts appear, gently return to the visualization. “You can imagine the thought being carried away in a bubble or by a bird.”
Take a mental snapshot of this place, and remind yourself that you can return here any time you’d like. Lastly, bring your attention back to your breathing, and open your eyes.
Practice yoga nidra. Thompson noted that yoga nidra, translated into “yogic sleep,” is “an incredibly powerful tool” that helps to bring on deep relaxation. Tate practices iRest Yoga Nidra with her clients in session. This meditation practice is based on the ancient tradition of yoga nidra, and also includes 10 steps, such as setting an intention, noticing your breath, welcoming your emotions and witnessing your thoughts. You’ll find 8-minute and 20-minute guided practices from iRest’s creator here.
Practice stargazing. This is another beautiful visualization from Sleep Rituals. Stargazing is an especially powerful practice, because “there are fragments of stars within you,” writes Williamson, creator of AimHappy.com.
She suggests going outside or looking out the window at the sky. You also might play celestial music, and use essential oils such as lavender and cedarwood. Lie down, close your eyes, and visualize what you saw (or something more magical). Imagine yourself lying on top of the earth, “connected above and below to the infinite beauty and marvel of the universe.” You also might imagine both near and distant stars, constellations, the moon and passing clouds.
“If a distracting thought appears, picture it swirling like stardust upward into the sky, where it is remade into a shining new star,” Williamson writes. “You might notice fireflies drifting through the air around you or crickets chirping…Ponder your shared ingredients with the stars and your essential connection to everything you see, feel, and hear.” When you’re ready, move your fingers and toes, stretch your limbs, and open your eyes.
When we have full days, it’s hard to immediately fall asleep. Thankfully, mindfulness provides us with some relaxing, soothing options.