Breathing And Visual Techniques For Falling Asleep (Plus Other Tips For Nodding Off)

Woman lying in bed, trying to sleep
Garry Wade via Getty Images
Woman lying in bed, trying to sleep

Anyone who struggles to fall asleep knows all too well the seemingly endless minutes (or hours) laying there, tossing and turning, fruitlessly willing the brain to switch off. Though did you know that you can't actually make yourself fall asleep?

"They key is to not get frustrated with yourself if you can't fall asleep. You can't physically force yourself into it, all you can do is help yourself relax to let it come. I liken it to trying to digest a biscuit you've just eaten faster -- you can't physically do that. It's the same with sleep, it’s a function of the body and you can't force it to happen," Professor Dorothy Bruck from the Sleep Health Foundation told The Huffington Post Australia.

As Bruck stated, getting yourself into a relaxed state is key, and slow breathing can help do just that.

"We know that slowing down your breathing and using deep breathing that goes right down to your diaphragms is a stress reduction method and can reduce anxiety," Bruck said.

"It's an effective stress reduction technique and it is very applicable for lying in bed when you're going off to sleep. Reason being, it is putting you in a more relaxed, decompressed state, and it also requires you to focus on the 'here and now', not about what happened today or what is happening tomorrow. It's a good distraction that can hopefully crowd out some of the ‘hot thoughts’ about the past or the future."

In addition to deep breathing, Bruck suggests that the use of visualisation can also help us unwind and better prepare us for sleep.

"One of the other things that seems to be very helpful for falling asleep is to use your visual imagination. Visual imagery seems to help crowd out 'hot thoughts' as it give us something else to think about. If I'm dealing with someone with insomnia I would tell them to try deep breathing, but also try visual imagery as well. That could be imagining their favourite place, thinking of waves at the beach, or anything neutral or calming," Bruck said.

Bruck also suggests picturing yourself already asleep. Visualise yourself sleeping, looking down on top of yourself, with your head curled up in a comfortable position.

"The reason counting sheep doesn't work is because it's too boring. And so people are easily distracted, thinking about what they have to do tomorrow. What people don't realise is that part of the process of going to sleep is about having drifting thoughts that go back and forward in some sort of visualisation, so they shouldn't be upset if they can't focus on certain things. Instead, gently try to bring thoughts back to whatever the visual imagery is that they are doing."

To give both slow breathing and visualisation a go, Bruck suggests the following:

"Take 10 slow breaths and with every breath you visualise the number of that breath in a different colour. So number one might be hot pink, number two might be green, and so on. Part of this process is the visual imagery, and part of it is forcing concentration because you have to decide what colour the next number will be. Other thoughts will intrude, but you bring your thoughts back to the number and selecting the colour," Bruck said.

In addition, Dr Amy Jordan from the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences suggests creating an environment conducive to good sleep.

  • Avoid vigorous exercise after dinner as this can wake the body and brain up for a few hours.
  • Keep bed for sleep (and sex), avoid watching tv/iPads etc in bed.
  • Make sure the temperature is right (not too hot or cold).
  • Are you spending too long in bed? If you’re in bed 10 hours but only need 8 hours sleep of course you will be awake lots in bed.
  • Keep a fairly consistent bed and rise time, try not to nap or make it a short one and not late in the day if you do need to nap.
  • Keep the lights dim in the evenings and try and get bright sunshine in the morning.
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